County’s Judges Order Allocation of Court Funds


Sending a long-simmering battle into uncharted legal territory, Orange County’s top judges issued a court order Tuesday demanding that county officials allocate an additional $23 million to keep county courts operating at what the jurists called a “sufficient level.”

The amount is far more than the $8.5 million the courts tentatively agreed to receive through June under a deal worked out with county negotiators earlier this month. The deal, which would have deferred millions of dollars in capital projects and purchases to next year, collapsed two weeks ago.

The order, signed by all six presiding judges and served to top county officials Tuesday afternoon, marks the beginning of a court fight that both sides described as highly unusual and potentially precedent-setting. County supervisors voted hours earlier to mount a legal challenge to any such order.


“This is the first order of its kind that I am aware of,” said Theodore E. Millard, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court. “The basic issue here is who controls the court’s budget. Is the [county] going to micro-manage it or are courts going to control it?”

Millard and the other judges contend that the county has failed to provide adequate funding for the courts to operate through the end of the fiscal year in June, a claim that county officials dispute.

The order seeks $13 million to cover salaries, services and supplies through June 30. The judges want $10 million more to cover technology and equipment upgrades, capital projects such as an airport-style security system for the Central Courthouse, and 58 new positions that would be filled next year.

The judges originally sought $18.9 million in additional funding, but reduced the amount to $13.9 million earlier this year.

By contrast, County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier’s office maintains that the courts require at most $1 million to $2 million to continue operations through June.

Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner expressed surprise at the amount the judges are seeking and questioned whether all the items were needed simply to maintain basic court operations.


“This is just another example of how their funding requests are a moving target,” Steiner said. “They are including millions of dollars for items that have nothing to do with whether they can try cases or administer justice.”


Hours before the judges’ action, the Board of Supervisors voted in closed session to immediately challenge any court order demanding additional funds. The case eventually will likely be heard by a judge outside the county.

County officials have vowed to keep courts operating without interruption. Steiner said he will seek approval of some modest court funding increases at next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

Because of this pledge, Millard said he is optimistic that none of the county’s six courthouses will shut their doors.

The looming judicial fight marks one of the few times in California history that state judges and county government officials have gone to court over a funding dispute.

The court funding crisis stems largely from moves by the Legislature in recent years to allocate less state money for court operations, and to shift more of the financial burden of running state courts to the counties.


State law requires counties to provide the courts with “suitable” facilities and “sufficient attendants, heat, light, furnishings, equipment, stationery, supplies and other personal property for courtrooms and chambers.”

The legal battle between the courts and the county will likely center on exactly what is “suitable” and “sufficient.”

The 39-page court order states that “the courts’ resources have been curtailed to the breaking point” and that without more money, they “will be prevented from performing their constitutionally and statutorily mandated functions.”


Of the $23.3 million, about $13 million would cover court salaries and other obligations through June 30. Another $6.7 million would go to pay to “critical” technology upgrades such as court automation systems and a new jury management computer system. Millard said the county has previously rejected requests to fund some of the items.

Another $700,000 would go for capital projects, such as the security system. About $2 million would pay for 19 new marshal positions to staff the security system as well as 37 new court positions. With only two months left before the end of the fiscal year, court officials said it is unlikely the jobs could be filled and project completed until sometime in the 1997-98 budget year.

Millard said all the items are needed to improve judicial operations and improve the aging capabilities of the courthouses, which have suffered through two years of austere, post-bankruptcy budgets.


Supervisor Todd Spitzer said Tuesday that he hopes the issue can be resolved without protracted litigation. “I do not want the negotiations to break down between county and courts,” he said. “It’s very important that the county maintain good relations with the courts and judges and those who serve in the legal system.”

Millard agreed. “It doesn’t mean negotiations must end,” the judge said. “Reasonable people can disagree. Honorable people disagree. That’s how I feel we’ve left it.”


Where the Money Would Go

Here is a breakdown of the funding sought by Orange County’s presiding judges in a court order signed Tuesday. County officials vowed to immediately challenge the order.

1) Salaries, services and supplies through June: $13.7 million

Superior Court: $8,000,280

Municipal in Santa Ana: $1,449,962

Municipal in Newport Beach: $661,880

Municipal in Fullerton: $1,641,592

Municipal in Laguna Niguel: $820,000

Municipal in Westminster: $1,121,000

2) Computer, equipment, technology upgrades: $6.7 million

3) Courtroom modification/Airport-style security: $700,100*

4) 37 court positions: $1.6 million**

5) 19 marshal positions for airport-style security system: $600,000 **

Total: $23.3 million

* Some projects would not be funded until 1997-98 budget year.

** Positions would not be filled until 1997-98 budget year.

Source: Orange County presiding judges

Funding Feud

Here are some key dates in the conflict between Orange County officials and judges over court funding:

* Feb. 21: The state Judicial Council concludes that the county’s courts need more money to continue operating through June, urges judges and county officials to negotiate.


* March 20: Judges and two county supervisors begin intense negotiations aimed at striking a funding compromise.

* March 29: Negotiators announce a tentative settlement that would provide the courts with $4.3 million to $8.5 million in additional funding through June.

* April 7: Compromise falls apart, with each side accusing the other of changing terms at the last minute.

* April 22: Judges issue a court order seeking more than

$23 million in additional funding to cover expenses as well as capital projects and supplies.