Auditor, Judicial Council at loggerheads over family courts audit

State Auditor Elaine Howell has reached an impasse with Judicial Council of California in her efforts to carry out a legislatively-mandated audit of family courts.

The two offices have been in contact since last July, when the Joint Legislative Audit Committee unanimously approved a request to audit the family courts in Marin and Sacramento Counties. The audit was requested by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, after numerous allegations of conflict of interests and other problems in those jurisdictions.

This correspondence became an open dispute last month, when the Bureau of State Audits threatened to subpoena documents it says it needs to complete the audit.

This came in a March 18 letter from Sharon Reilly, chief legal counsel for the auditor’s office, who gave a the Judicial Council a deadline of Monday, April 5.

The reply did come by the deadline. But the response from Mary Roberts, general counsel for the Judicial Council, continued to deny many of the auditor’s requests.

“To be clear, the courts are not opposed to providing the bureau access to all individuals and records ‘necessary for the completion of this audit.’ Moreover, the courts have never opposed such access,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts went on to say that the courts should not be required to deliver “confidential/sealed documents” such as “criminal history reports, fee waivers, psychological reports” and similar documents. She continued, “None of these documents appears necessary or relevant to the completion of the audit inasmuch as they are in no way related to the process the court uses for court appointments.”

These “court appointments” are at the heart of the original audit request. The audit effort was pushed by a Marin-based group called the Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE). Their critique of the family courts claims that judges, attorneys and court-mandated specialists such as child psychologists have become overly friendly in these counties and a few others—with high-priced, court-mandated evaluation contracts being given favored to people. The CJE has also alleged that the high cost of these specialists and other aspects of family courts favor more well-off litigants.

Reached late on Wednesday afternoon, Leno confirmed that he had just met with Howle and Reilly and said they are determining their next move. He said that he and the auditor do want to protect confidential litigant information, especially related to cases that are still open. But Leno also said that Judicial Council letter acknowledged the broad powers that auditor has to require disclosure.

“At this point we just have to be patient and await the determination of the auditor and her legal counsel,” Leno said. “The audit will be conducted, and on the terms of the auditor.”

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