California judges playing a bigger role in policy 

As noted countless times, California’s government is broken, endemically incapable of addressing the state’s most pressing policy issues.

As the crisis has deepened, another factor has made itself increasingly evident — intervention by state and federal courts in what used to be political policy decision-making.

The chronically unbalanced state budget is the most obvious example of the system’s dysfunction.

Any major financial decision discomfits someone. Those who feel aggrieved often go to court, seeking either to overturn or at least delay its implementation.

One federal judge seized control of the prison health care system, saying the state was spending an inadequate amount of money. Other judges are threatening a broader intervention if the state doesn’t relieve prison overcrowding.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered state workers to take three days off without pay each month to save money, their unions sued. The governor has won some furlough suits and lost others. He hopes the state Supreme Court will help him.

A federal appellate court upheld a lower court’s ruling that when Schwarzenegger and the Legislature reduced spending on in-home care for the elderly and disabled, they violated federal procedures. It also blocked cuts in Medi-Cal provider rates.

That ruling came one day after a state appellate court ruled that Schwarzenegger had the legal right to unilaterally reduce appropriations in last year’s revised state budget, handing a defeat to Democratic legislators.

And so it goes, suit after suit, making federal and state judges virtual participants in the already obdurately complex business of deciding how a limited pot of money should be divvied up. And state judges themselves are not immune from the budget crisis.

The courts, which are financed by the state, have been coping with their own share of budget cuts — closing up shop a couple of days a month, for example.

There’s a sharp squabble within the judiciary over whether revenue from recent boosts in fines and fees to finance a $5 billion courthouse construction program should be spent instead on keeping existing courtrooms open.

There’s another internal clash over the very expensive statewide computer system that Chief Justice Ron George wants to implement, and still another over the growth of the statewide judicial bureaucracy that George oversees.

Finally, the courts have been sucked into the state’s ceaseless ballot measure wars. Virtually every significant measure is litigated before submission to voters, usually over wording of ballot language. Most of those winning voter approval are litigated afterward, such as the anti-gay marriage measure, Proposition 8.

California judges have become full-blown players in the political game. And that’s not a healthy trend.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Michael Daboll

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