Auditor: CA courts not spending money judiciously

Auditor: CA courts not spending money judiciously

Scales of justice, wikimediaCalifornia’s state and local courts commonly complain they don’t get enough funds to do their jobs. And if there’s one area where I would want more government spending, it would be to make the courts more efficient. Having to deal with the justice system is difficult enough, even if you’re innocent (such as a crime victim) or the aggrieved party in a civil suit.

But when it takes years, even decades, do work through the court system, then that itself is a punishment.

But State Auditor Elaine M. Howle has found the courts don’t efficiently spend the money they already get. The long study title includes the conclusion: “Judicial Branch of California: Because of Questionable Fiscal and Operational Decisions, the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts Have Not Maximized the Funds Available for the Courts.”

Howle first noted:

Public confidence in the judicial system stems, in part, from confidence that the system’s administrators manage its operations efficiently and appropriately. This report concludes that questionable fiscal and operational decisions by the Judicial Council and the AOC [Administrative Office of the Courts] have limited funds available to the courts.

State law affords the Judicial Council a significant amount of autonomy related to developing budgets and approving expenditures on behalf of the trial courts. With this autonomy, the Judicial Council has an obligation to act in the best interest of the public, especially during times of fiscal hardship.

Right. If you go to court over a property dispute, say, you want to be assured the court itself understands fiscal prudence. Especially in what still are tough economic times for many people, despite the economic recovery.

To maximize funding available to the courts, we expected that the Judicial Council and the AOC would have carefully scrutinized their operations and expenditures to ensure they were necessary, justified, and prudent. However, we found that this was not always the case. Specifically, the Judicial Council failed to adequately oversee the AOC—its staff agency that assists it in managing the judicial branch budget and provides administrative support to judicial branch entities. In the absence of such oversight, the AOC engaged in about $30 million in questionable compensation and business practices over a four-year period and failed to adequately disclose its expenditures to stakeholders and the public.

Furthermore, although state law authorizes the Judicial Council and the AOC to spend state funding appropriated for the trial courts on behalf of those courts, we have concerns regarding the appropriateness of some of the expenditures. Over the past four years, the AOC spent $386 million on behalf of the trial courts including $186 million in payments to consultants, contractors, and temporary employees using the trial courts local assistance appropriations; however, the AOC could have paid a portion of these costs using its own appropriation. If it had done so, some of those local assistance funds would have been available to support the courts.

As the third, independent branch of government, it is crucial that the courts operate efficiently and without scandal. Otherwise they invite interference by the legislative branch, which holds the purse strings, and the executive branch, which has investigative powers.

Howle recommended:

Given the lapses in the Judicial Council’s oversight and the AOC’s decision making, we believe significant change is necessary to ensure that the State’s courts receive the critical funding they require to provide access to justice for all Californians. As such, we made numerous recommendations that we believe will improve operations, increase transparency, and ensure accountability within the judicial branch.

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