THE TRUTH IS IN THE NUMBERS, BY MICHAEL PLANET

How often under the crush of work do we think that we sure are busy but don’t really know if there is any basis for feeling that way? Recent reports issued by the California Judicial Council some answers as they relate
to the current judge and staff demands for trial courts, including the Ventura Superior Court.

The four important reports are the Court Statistics Report, the Resource Assessment Study (RAS), the Workload Allocation Funding Model (WAFM), and the SB 56 Advisory Committee Report. The Judicial Council
annually issues the Court Statistics Report on the business conducted in the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal and the trial courts. The Resource Assessment Study (RAS) was authorized by the Council in 2001 to develop a methodology for determining each of the 58 trial courts’ workloads and resources needed (i.e. staff ) to manage that workload. Simply put, the RAS measures the new case filings, weights those filings by the amount of staff time spent to reach disposition, and applies a staffing model to determine how many and what kinds of staff support is needed to manage the work. The Workload Allocation Funding Model (WAFM) was adopted by the Council in 2013 and takes RAS to determine how much it would  cost to fund the necessary staff. The SB 56 Advisory Committee was created in response to 2006 legislation requiring the Council to report biannually on judgeship needs, and its 2013 report takes RAS to determine the number of judicial officers needed to manage the workload. There are complex methodologies and statistical analyses underlying each of these studies which are discussed in great detail in the reports. Each of these reports is available to the public on the California Courts website, www.courts.ca.gov.

How busy are we?
So, how do we know how busy we are? What each of these reports reveals is that the Ventura Superior Court, to use a sports metaphor, is pound-for-pound busier than most other California trial courts. Based on statistics for Fiscal Year 2011-2012, our court with 33 judicial officers (29 judges and four commissioners) is tied for fourteenth place in size with San Mateo. Our 5,379 filings per judge rank fifth and 4,505 dispositions per judge rank 11th. The 280  jury trials rank tenth.

Compared to what? The busiest court in the state is Imperial, with 6,480 filings and 6,898 dispositions per judge. The least busy court is Sierra, with 387 filings and 249 dispositions per judge. Contenders are Alpine and Modoc, each with fewer than 1,000 filings and dispositions per judge. Alpine reported having no jury trials in the year. Mariposa and Mono each reported one jury trial for all case types.

Compared to courts our size, San Mateo (33 judicial officers) is ranked seventh in filings and fourth in dispositions per judge. San Joaquin (36.5 judicial officers) is 38th and 30th respectively. San Francisco, with a population and number of dispositions very similar to Ventura and twice the number of judicial officers (65) is ranked 37th in filings and 42nd in dispositions per judge.

One-third increase needed
So, what do we need? Looking to the future, these reports tell us how many judges and staff we need to manage our work, and how much it will cost. The Governor signed SB 56 in 2006, directing the Judicial Council to report bienially on the number of judges needed. That report indicates a need for 43.7 judicial officers for the Ventura Superior Court, an increase of 10.7 over our current complement. The RAS indicates a need for 400 staff to support court operations compared to the 290 remaining after five consecutive fiscal years of budget reductions, a gap of 110. WAFM converts those staff to dollars indicating the need for an increase in state funding from the $33.7 million in FY 2012-2013 to $50.4 million.

Increased funding needed, too

These reports also underscore the need for additional funding based on our workload in two critical areas. Juvenile dependency is one of the few case types that has grown over the past several years, not only in Ventura but statewide. In many of these cases, the Court appoints attorneys to represent the child and the parents. The funding need equates to $1.7 million; we are currently allocated $755,000, a gap of almost $1 million. The second area is providing interpreters in  domestic violence cases. A grant funds our program with $9,000 for a need projected to be $22,000.

The Ventura Superior Court has benefitted from the Judicial Council’s new emphasis on using workload as the primary measure of resource needs. Our percentage of the allocation of state funds has grown for the first time since the historical model for funding the state trial courts shifted from the counties to the state in 1998. It will continue to grow incrementally over the next four years. The judicial needs study has resulted in the re-prioritizing of new judgeships for Ventura County. Existing 1997 legislation authorizing 50 new judgeships statewide (not yet funded) will be amended to include two for Ventura County, subject to appropriation. The staffing model at long  last  acknowledges the need for dedicated staff based on our workload.

It is important to put the findings of all these reports in the context of five consecutive fiscal years of budget reductions not just to the Ventura Superior Court, but statewide. These reports underscore that no trial court in the state today has the resources and funding to effectively manage its workload. Many courts also do not have the number of judges needed. How the funding for the needs of the trial courts is prioritized along with all the programs in the other branches of government will continue to be a challenge. But we know now how busy we are and what we need to promote the fair and efficient administration of justice in California. It’s in the numbers.

Michael Planet is  the Court Executive Officer of the Superior Court of California for Ventura County.

About Bar