Gavel Grab

Ethics Course for California Judicial Candidates is Mandatory

A new, required course in judicial ethics for candidates for the bench in California went online this week, the California Judicial Branch announced. Candidates must take the course within 60 days of filing to run, creating a campaign committee, or getting a campaign contribution.

The California Supreme Court adopted the requirement rule almost a year ago.

“The Supreme Court changed the rules to promote and enhance public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and to provide guidance on the ethical obligations and responsibilities of those running for judicial office,” said Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. Read more

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California Eyes Jury Inclusion of Legal Noncitizens

California’s legislature has sent to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk a bill that would allow juries to include noncitizens living in the state legally. In the New York Times, columnist Bill Keller, who just spent two days in a jury pool, tells about the idea’s origins and why he likes it.

Juries have become more inclusive in recent decades, and California Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked why they should be limited to citizens. Noncitizens “benefit from the protections of our laws, so it is fair and just that they be asked to share in the obligation to do jury duty,” he contended.

Noncitizens may sue others, or be charged with crimes, and if they are to be judged, deserve to appear before a jury on which their peers are eligible to serve, Keller asserts. He discounts, meanwhile, the argument that juries should be made up only of people who have a say in making the law. In fact, according to the American Judicature Society, a JAS partner group, laws in 23 states do not require that a judge be a citizen. Read more

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Shrinking Budgets Force Courts to Reduce Hours or Shut Doors

Courthouses across the country are restricting hours or shutting down completely in an effort to save money in a time of tight budgets.  In California, 77 courthouses are closing their doors, and others are reducing their public service hours.  NPR reported on this trend and spotlighted the Fresno County Superior Court’s courthouse in Coalinga, California.

The Coalinga courthouse once had a full-time judge and trials before juries.  Then court officials restricted the types of cases heard there, and later, visiting judges took the place of the full-time judge.  The courthouse has now been closed for a year as a result of budget cuts.  Where a courtroom podium once stood, a television now hangs  for traffic court via video streaming.  All small claims cases and criminal arraignments are dealt with over an hour away in Fresno, resulting in travel expenses that cost the Coalinga police department about $25,000 last year.

In NPR’s reporting, residents and decision makers discussed the court closing.  While one resident discussed the loss of an “American experience,” a local business owner is quoted saying that “I haven’t seen a huge loss with it not being here.”  It is clear that diminishing services have limited access to justice.  Gavel Grab has been following court funding issues closely; to follow these issues on Gavel Grab, click here.

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‘Financially Besieged’ CA Courts May Receive $100 Million

California court officials have been downtrodden due to shrinking budgets for the state’s courts, but they may have a reason to celebrate soon.

Two state legislative committees have recommended restoring $100 million in budget cuts to California’s trial courts, according to the Modesto Bee.

Sen. Noreen Evans, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is hopeful that the state legislature will join on a proposal that will be incorporated into the final budget plan and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on June 15 for approval. Read more

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San Mateo County’s Courts Reflect Growing Diversity of CA Judges

For years the judges on San Mateo County’s bench all tended to come from similar backgrounds, either that of a prosecutor or of a civil litigator. There were no former public defenders, and only one Asian American judge – Elizabeth Lee.

The San Francisco Examiner reports that a shift in this trend occurred in 2010, when two public defenders, Judge Leland Davis III and Judge Donald Ayoob (photo), were appointed to serve on the San Mateo County Superior Court.

Davis is now the lone African American judge serving in the county, and Ayoob is the sole Arab-American, the article notes. Read more

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Budget Cuts Result in Stark Inequalities in Federal Courts

In San Diego, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the offices for the Federal Defenders are only a few blocks apart, yet they have been affected quite differently by across-the-board federal budget cuts, says the U-T San Diego News.

Federal Defenders of San Diego is a private nonprofit funded by the government. Under the recent budget cuts, known as sequestration, all staff will have to take six unpaid furlough days.

It’s the opposite story at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, since Attorney General Eric Holder announced in an April 25th memo that department employees will not be furloughed this fiscal year.

Besides San Diego, federal public defenders offices across the country are reducing hours and public services (see Gavel Grab). This has led to criticism that budget cuts are affecting public defenders and prosecutors differently, the article says. Read more

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California Judicial Council Approves New Court Funding Allocations

The California Judicial Council approved a highly anticipated proposal to revise funding methods for state courts on Friday, reports the Press-Enterprise.

The members of a Trial Court Budget Working Group were appointed to research and propose a new funding model that would boost allocations to underfunded courts, such as those in Riverside and San Bernardino County, according to Courthouse News Service.

Under the new formula, state funding will be based on workload of the courts, including the number of case filings the courts receive. Courts in San Bernardino County and Riverside County will receive more funding, while courts in areas such as Santa Clara County will get less than they have received in the past. Read more

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Countrywide, Court Officials Juggling New Funding Models

California’s judicial leaders are planning to implement a Robin Hood-style distribution of limited court funds by taking money going to courts in Northern California, and sending it to other courts throughout the state, reports the Silicon Valley Mercury News.

This shift in funding will likely impact the court’s ability to resolve civil cases quickly, the article says. The proposed plan is an effort to fix imbalances in funding state courts that have persisted throughout the years.

In San Bernardino County, courthouses have been shut down in an effort to save money, but those courts are about to receive an additional $13 million in funding under the formula. Read more

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OR, CA, IL Courts Hurting from Scarcity of Funding

While defenders of federal courts have spoken frequently in the past few weeks about a need for greater funding, court systems at the state level are also experiencing dire consequences from smaller budgets.

In Oregon, layoffs have led to overflowing caseloads and shuttered courthouses, an Oregonian editorial says. According to the state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Balmer, the courts need $410 million from 2013-2015 in order to run efficiently everyday at full capacity.

While the state courts deserve to be funded equally as a third branch of government, the editorial argues, legislators have yet to find an adequate source of money. The courts are having to spend increasingly more on its pension system, making it difficult to find a long term solution to the system’s search for funds, it says. Read more

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Top CA Judge: Funding Cuts Leading to a ‘Civil Rights Crisis’?

California’s chief justice, lamenting closures of numerous state courts due to budget cuts, drew on a history lesson to warn that California “may now be facing a civil rights crisis.”

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye cited the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright, which said states must provide counsel for criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. The ruling also offered a reminder that courts often provide a last resort for people they serve, she said, according to a Los Angeles Times article:

“Justice requires a court. But what we once counted on — that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice — no longer exists in California.” 

Budget cuts have led to reduced general funding of California’s courts by 65 percent in five years. In addition to closures, hours have been trimmed, court fees have soared, and some courts have seen “unconscionable delays” in setting dates for civil case proceedings, she said.

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