SACRAMENTO (AP) — The state Assembly on Monday narrowly approved legislation that would return control of California's $3 billion court budget to the Legislature, stripping some authority from the court bureaucracy in a move opposed by the state's chief justice.
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, and other critics say the Administrative Office of the Courts and the system's bureaucracy have grown out of control, spending billions of dollars on a new computer system at the same time local courthouses have closed or greatly reduced hours and services because of budget cuts.
In the midst of the cuts, the Administrative Office of the Courts transferred another $70 million to the computer upgrade project, Calderon said, enough money to keep the shuttered courts open.
AB1208 "puts the Legislature back in control of the purse strings and allows the Legislature to appropriate money directly to the courts," he said.
Lawmakers debated the bill for nearly an hour before it passed with the bare majority needed, 41-23, sending it to the Senate. At least 15 lawmakers abstained from voting.
Opponents and supporters of the legislation have been lobbying hard in recent weeks. The measure has divided lower court judges.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who assumed the state's top judicial post a year ago, said the legislation threatens the courts' independence. She has asked lawmakers for more time to fix the administrative problems.
Several legislators said they were hesitant to undo the system, which was established by the Legislature in 1997 and ended a piecemeal system that left dramatic funding and service disparities from county to county.
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said taking control of court funding is not a way to end the current problems.
"We all have an underlying responsibility to recognize a co-equal branch of government's necessary ability to determine its own affairs," he said. "Sometimes it is the right time to let another branch of government run its own business."
The legislation also would require increased scrutiny for spending money on any statewide information system or infrastructure program that was not in the annual budget. That is an attempt to avoid another debacle like the Statewide Case Management Project, which aimed to link all courts to a centralized computer system.
The cost of that system has climbed from $260 million in 2004 to an estimated $1.9 billion in 2010, and the state auditor has cited numerous problems with the contracts and bidding process.
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a San Diego Republican who voted for the bill, called the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the computer project, "a failed institution that is failing the trial courts that it is entrusted to protect."
He cited a litany of questionable expenditures as evidence that the agency was not interested in real change. In the midst of a budget crisis, Fletcher said the court office spent $5,000 to paint a closet, $21,000 to replace lights in a parking lot in Los Angeles, and $200,000 to repave a parking lot the agency leases month-to-month.
Several lawmakers noted that Cantil-Sakauye has been chief justice for only a year and urged supporters of the legislation to give her time to make the sweeping changes they are seeking, but Calderon said he has already waited.
"I gave the chief justice time," Calderon said. "I didn't take this bill up last year. It's been nearly a year, and what's changed?"