Leave the Budget to the Judges

Perhaps I've been spending too much time with lawyers.

To run a global conference on initiative and referendum, I've been working out of the University of California Hastings College of Law in the center of San Francisco. My office is a short walk to the federal courthouse and the offices of the California Supreme Court.

But the thought occurs, as Sacramento fails to reckon with the state budget, that maybe the budget should be solved here in courthouses instead of the Capitol.

The state legislature seems in no hurry to pass the budget. Heck, Assembly Speaker John Perez sounds as though he'd be content to wait until next year, when a new governor takes office, to make a deal. Schwarzenegger himself, while focused on the budget, seems more interested in reforms he can exact from the process (namely on pensions) than on the budget itself. (And given how ugly the numbers are, who can blame him for accentuating the positive?)

Meanwhile the courts have hardly been bashful about intervening in the budget, dictating to elected leaders on issues ranging from how state workers are paid to the funding of prisons and health care.

So why not throw the whole problem in the hands of the courts?

Judges, at the very least, make decisions -- instead of avoiding them, as lawmakers do in an election year. And California's budget system is so dysfunctional, so full of legal restrictions, that there's very little room for legislators and the governor to maneuver. Judges, with the power to set precedent and overturn old laws, may have more flexibility.

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