Back in mid-April, Davis Enterprise columnist Rich Rifkin challenged the new Yolo County courthouse project, arguing “One area where the state might save some money without too much pain is with its ambitious plan to build 35 new courthouses and to renovate six old ones. In 2008, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law SB 1407. It provides five billion dollars for these 41 projects.”
Judge Rosenberg, who is the presiding judge in Yolo County, quickly responded, writing, “His column is so full of misstatements and misconceptions that I felt compelled to respond.”
The Judge argued that “this project is not straining any budget — state, county or local. Not one penny of taxpayer money is used for the courthouse project. No state general fund money is used for the project. The project is completely funded by a statewide surcharge assessed against everyone convicted of a violation of the criminal law.”
Mr. Rifkin’s idea was for the legislature to allow that money to be used for the general fund and current cuts to the budget.
Judge Rosenberg argued that to do so “would violate state law, which requires that the money collected from people who violate the law should be used for court facilities.” He further argued that “to do so would ignore the constitution, which would mandate some sort of nexus between the fee and the expenditure — using the funds from those convicted of crime to pay off a county’s debt has no nexus; using the funds to pay for court facilities certainly does.”
Earlier this week, the legislature of course did what Judge Rosenberg said could not be done.
In an article this morning, Judge Rosenberg told the Daily Democrat that the Legislature had diverted about $300 million from the court construction fund to the general fund, which would leave only $90 million left in the statewide fund.
“Clearly, there is not enough money in the statewide court construction fund to move all 41 critical needs projects forward,” he told the Daily Democrat in an email. “Ultimately, the Judicial Council will make the determinations as to which projects move forward and which will be delayed.”
Nevertheless, due to how far along in the process Yolo County is, Judge Rosenberg remains at least publicly optimistic.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the Judicial Council will keep the Yolo County Courthouse project moving forward with little or no delay,” the Judge told the paper.
Meanwhile, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued a strong statement on Tuesday about cuts to the judicial branch budget.
“I am completely dismayed and gravely concerned about how the proposed budget cuts will affect the judicial branch and the public we serve,” she said.
“In addition to a $350 million dollar cut to the judicial branch, the Governor and the Legislature propose sweeping the judicial branch’s funding for infrastructure projects—projects to build safe and secure courthouses for the public,” the Chief Justice added. “The money will be placed in the state’s general fund. These cuts are unsustainable and incompatible with equal justice for all. This is a sad day for justice in California.”
Unfortunately, such statements are ultimately self-serving. It is certainly not clear that the money going to the courts is any more pressing than the far more money that has been cut from education and social services.
More to the point, as Mr. Rifkin pointed out over two months ago, “Yet in reality, there is no reason SB 1407 could not be temporarily changed.”
He wrote, “Until we are out of the economic crisis, the legislature could redirect those new court security fees to the general fund. Once our economy picks up, that new money could then be put in the ICNA, where it would finance courthouse projects as needed.”
Judge Rosenberg argues that we need a new courthouse. I agree. Just yesterday a number of people had to wait on the stairs as yet another contingency of in-custody defendants were paraded across the courthouse chained together. One attorney noted that this whole process was so archaic, and there can be no disputing that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting