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Another Blow to Our Courts

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Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2013 12:00 am

As California has struggled through the mire of a stagnant economy over the past several years, the budgets of numerous state departments have been slashed.

In San Bernardino County, among the most noticeable, and most damaging, of these downsizing moves has been in the court system.

The county has borne its share of the statewide cuts, which have aggregated to more than a half billion dollars in ongoing reductions.

In addition, more than $1 billion in courthouse construction money across California has been redirected to help balance the state budget.

In a county with fewer than two-thirds of the judge positions its workload justifies, these cuts have been bad news for Inland Empire residents. Whether we’re crime victims or filers of civil suits, we need access to justice, and don’t need courthouses closing or having their hours trimmed, forcing us to wait for seemingly interminable periods.

With prospects of an improved economy on the horizon, it would seem likely the courts could expect some relief. But that’s not in the cards, as the priorities of Gov. Brown and our elected leaders seem to lie elsewhere.

To keep their ship afloat in this sea of austerity, judicial officials have turned to a tried and true method of dealing with financial strictures—contracting out, to keep justice available in the least disruptive ways possible.

Courts have been hiring outside help for such essential functions as court reporting, interpreting, child custody and probate evaluations, security and other needs.

Because salaries are customarily the biggest share of any government budget, the ability to hire professional help without paying all the perks guaranteed to state workers could be the court’s best prospect for survival.

You would think the powers in Sacramento would appreciate such creative thinking, but, as is so often the case when you apply logic to our state government, you would be wrong.

As of the writing of this editorial, on Sept. 30, AB 566, by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Santa Clara), had passed both houses of the legislature and was on the governor’s desk.

Wieckowski’s official biography describes him as an attorney and small business owner focused on reducing unnecessary regulations. But AB 566 is full of needless rules, and suggests some less commendable motivation on Wieckowski’s part.

It’s a strong temptation to suspect state employee unions had a hand in drafting this bill.

Indeed, on the assemblyman’s website is the notation that the provisions of AB 566 “are the same requirements that already apply to the state, as well as our schools, community colleges and libraries.” Is it any wonder these public institutions, where public-employee unions are so strong, have such trouble adapting to shrinking tax revenues?

We’re suspicious of the unions’ clout because the bill would forbid such contracting out unless clear cost savings can be shown. However, those savings can’t come in the form of employee wages.

Consider the following language, taken straight from Section 1, paragraph A3 of AB 566:

“The contract shall not cause an existing trial court employee to incur a loss of his or her employment or employment seniority, a reduction in wages, benefits or hours, or an involuntary transfer to a new location requiring a change in residence.”

The paragraph preceding it makes contracts eligible for approval only “if the contractor’s wages are at the industry’s level and do not materially undercut court pay rates.”

If this measure becomes law, court officials across California will learn first hand what it means to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, as the courthouse equivalent of teacher tenure takes effect and robs them of the ability to take the most meaningful steps toward managing court costs.

With their well-documented shortage of judges already posing big problems, the last thing courts in this county need is to be barred from using the best available tools to keep functioning and keep access to justice open.

Gov. Brown should veto this ill-advised bill, and the legislature should have its wrists slapped for passing it.

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