Courts Demand Changes to Funding Deal


The funding compromise that was supposed to avert a shutdown of the county’s courthouses next month was in danger of coming unraveled Friday, with the presiding judge demanding that the county change some of the deal’s terms.

The judges insist that the courts need more money to continue operating beyond mid-May and have threatened to sign a court order obliging the county to allocate the funds unless a negotiated settlement of the funding standoff is struck soon.

Negotiators this week reached a compromise that is scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors for a vote on Tuesday.


The proposal would provide the courts with $4.2 million in additional funding this year, plus up to $4.3 million more in case the courts cannot cover salary costs through the end of the fiscal year in June.

On Friday, however, judges sent a letter to county negotiators disputing six elements of the proposal. The primary disagreement centers on the $4.3 million, which the judges insist should be available to pay for salaries as well as other court “obligations.”

The judges said they left the negotiations believing that those obligations would be included in the final agreement.

“We want to clarify these points,” said Theodore E. Millard, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court. “We are 98% to the goal line. I think we need another meeting on Monday to deal with these points.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner said he and other county negotiators will review the judges’ complaints on Monday morning and determine whether another meeting would be productive.

“Some of their points seem to be semantical. But if we find major problems, we will pull the item off the agenda,” Steiner said. “If that happens, the atmosphere would immediately move from one of negotiations to one of confrontation.”


Steiner, who has long sought to avoid a legal showdown with the judiciary, said he was disappointed by the last-minute dispute.

“It’s disturbing that this comes at the 11th hour, especially after we thought we had an understanding,” he said.

Steiner said there is a limit to how much county negotiators can bend, especially as opposition to the agreement among other county leaders mounts. “Obviously, we already have a hard enough sell to the rest of the board,” he said.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer announced Friday that he could not support the proposal unless the courts agreed to two measures he said would boost efficiency.

Spitzer is the third supervisor to express reservations about providing the courts with additional money.

County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier’s office has long questioned whether the courts need additional funding and doubts the courts will ever shut their doors. The courts have already received $129 million, Mittermeier notes, about the same amount allocated last year.


Spitzer, a former deputy district attorney, said the courts could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by implementing a video arraignment system for criminal defendants.

More money could be saved by using private attorneys rather than public defenders to represent criminal defendants in some cases. He said the Municipal Court in Fullerton already uses such a “panel attorney” system.

“They want millions of dollars. I want to see how they can save us millions of dollars,” Spitzer said. “We need to look at ways for [the courts] to save money and be more efficient.”

Supervisor Jim Silva had already said he probably will oppose any additional county funding for the courts, saying the judges should seek relief from the Legislature, not the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Charles V. Smith said he is studying the proposal and will support it only if the courts “justify every dime” they are seeking.

The funding plan, proposed by Steiner and Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson, would increase the court’s 1996-97 allocation from $129 million to at least $133 million.


About $8 million in courthouse projects the judges wanted to fund immediately will be pushed back to next year under the plan, which boosts court spending in the 1997-98 budget year beyond $140 million.

Still, the deal would provide the courts with far less than the $18.9 million the judges first said was needed to stay open through June or the $13.9 million they said would resolve the problem last month.

Millard said the judges would “have no choice” but to sign a court order demanding the money if the board votes down the plan or if it is pulled off the agenda altogether.

Such a court order is expected to set off a lengthy court fight between the county and the judges.