Editorial: Brown should veto bill so courts can contract out in dire times

09/24/2013 12:00 AM

09/24/2013 2:58 PM

In the last four years, the Placer County Superior Court has laid off nearly half its workforce, going from 183 employees in 2009 to 102 today. To absorb deep state budget cuts, Placer court administrators have also been forced to close courtrooms, reduce court hours and place its remaining workers on furlough. To avoid closing more courtrooms, cutting more hours and laying off even more employees – actions that would have resulted in drastically reduced access to justice for the public – Placer Courts opted last year to contract with a private firm for court reporting services.

Ten court reporters lost their jobs, but contracting out saves the court $600,000 a year and keeps courtroom doors open. It also resulted in cheaper but more extensive court reporting services performed by some of the same workers who had previously been employees of the court.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont, has introduced legislation that would prevent any court in California from making such adjustments ever again, no matter the situation. He’s introduced and passed through the Legislature Assembly Bill 566. This legislation attaches so many restrictions and conditions to contracting out that no court would ever attempt it again. Sponsored by the California Court Reporters Association and the Service Employees International Union, the bill makes it prohibitively expensive and difficult for courts to contract out for any services “historically” performed by court employees. Courts would not be able to contract out for court reporting, security, janitorial services or even for the technical expertise they need to upgrade computer systems.

In a letter opposing the bill, Orange County court officials stated that the language in the bill is so restrictive it would require that court to undo all its recent technology upgrades that allow litigants and lawyers to file papers electronically and would “go back to a paper world and hire court employees to handle paper.”

The Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the state courts, opposes AB 566. So do the vast majority of county court administrators, from Los Angeles to Glenn and Sacramento counties.

The Judicial Council estimates that the Wieckowski bill would cost the struggling court system an extra $6 million a year. It would also force courts to forgo potential savings worth untold millions more.

Despite overwhelming opposition from the judicial branch, Wieckowski’s AB 566 zipped out of the Assembly and the Senate on heavily party-line votes. Local legislators who voted for this turkey include Sens. Darrell Steinberg and Lois Wolk and Assemblymembers Ken Cooley, Richard Pan and Roger Dickinson. To avoid alienating their powerful labor allies, these lawmakers have sent a bill to the governor that would reduce access to justice for the public.

Gov. Brown should stand with the public and justice and veto AB 566.

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