President of the Mt. San Jacinto Hemet Bar Association Julie Clark Will Work Toward Fixing Riverside County Judge Deficit

Julie Clark, a family law attorney in Hemet in Riverside County, was recently elected president of the Mt. San Jacinto Hemet Bar Association (MSJHBA).  Julie will serve as president of the MSJHBA Bar Association for 2013.

Julie enters the position prepared to face a growing county crisis.  As a result of the California Legislature’s failure to allocate new judgeships by population, in combination with budget cutbacks, Riverside County residents are paying more for fewer judicial services than any other county in California, except San Bernardino.

Each year since 2008, the Legislature has cut the budget for the judicial branch of the California government.  Every year, the Riverside trial courts are forced to operate on an increasingly reduced share of the state’s General Fund.  According to the State Legislative Analyst’s Office, the judicial branch has experienced ongoing budget reductions of $535 million over the last five years.  The judicial branch’s share of the General Fund fell sharply in that time frame, from 56% to just 20%, and will only decrease: the governor’s proposed budget for the 2013 to 2014 fiscal year allots a shockingly low 1% of the General Fund to the judicial branch for the entire state.

The budget cuts’ impact on the state’s judicial system is unmistakably negative.  In an effort to prevent sudden, catastrophic closures, many courts have imposed large increases in court user fees and fine assessments.  Unfortunately for citizens, the cost of operating the courts is being passed onto them.  In 2008, filing a civil case cost between $180 and $320. In 2012, that number jumped to $225-$435.

Legislative measures have only exacerbated the problem, as the judicial branch gets its funding from the Legislature.  One such measure by the Legislature ordered the judicial branch to unilaterally cut the trial court budget, which makes up 78.7% of the judicial branch budget, by 10%.  Yet another measure passed in 2012 prohibits a trial court from carrying over unspent funds greater than 1% of the budget from the previous fiscal year.  That figure of 1% of the court’s budget represents less than two weeks of the Court’s payroll.  This measure will cause a cash flow crisis by crippling the Riverside trial court’s ability to make payroll and advance grant program costs.

Worse still, the cuts have gravely comprised the courts’ ability to serve their citizens, with the Inland Empire having been hit the hardest.  This May, court closures in San Bernardino will require citizens to travel up to 175 miles one way to get to court. The budget crisis is particularly devastating to Riverside County because of the county’s size, population, and judge shortage.

Riverside County currently has 15 courthouses located across 7,300 miles in three regions, serving 2,244,399 residents. To close any one of those courthouses would serve as an increase in hardship for citizens using the court. Traveling from Corona to Blythe, for example, represents a three-hour drive.

In addition, Riverside’s population has been growing at the same time that there are fewer resources to serve them.  There has been a 44% increase in population in Riverside County since 2000, with a corresponding increase in the number of filings.

Riverside County is simply unable to adequately serve the rising number of residents with the number of judicial positions it is given.  The Legislative Analyst’s Office has assessed that Riverside County has a need for 138 judges.  Yet the county only has 83 judicial positions allotted—several of which still remain unfilled by the governor.  County courts need 1,354 employees but are understaffed by 21%. The judicial deficit has created an unpleasant reputation for the county:  Riverside County courts are now famous for being behind in criminal cases.  Because criminal cases must be tried in a specific time frame, on several occasions, Riverside has had to put the civil courts on hold for three to four months in order to have civil judges help catch up on the overload of criminal trials.  The county has been utilizing retired judges in a desperate effort to handle the massive workload.

Incredibly, while Riverside County Courts and residents suffer from a lack of acceptable judicial services, several other counties in California have an excess of judicial positions.  Santa Clara, in particular, has 89 judicial positions but only has a need for 78 by population. Alameda, as well, has five more judges than it needs.

“The double blow of the shortage of judges and the increased fees to residents of Riverside County has created the perfect storm of a deplorable lack of services to our citizens.  And the budget is still being cut.  A $13.9 million shortfall is expected for next year, and astonishingly, a new statute passed in 2012 prevents the trial courts from attempting to accumulate savings to mitigate the situation,” said Julie Clark in response to questions following the Bar Association presentation.

During her time as president, Julie Clark will work in collaboration with the Riverside County Bar Association, other local bar associations, and state and federal representatives to find a way to ameliorate the judge shortage and the resulting lack of services given to Riverside County residents.

For more information about the Mt. San Jacinto Hemet Bar Association or the Riverside County Courts judge deficit, contact Julie Clark at (951) 658-0025.