Harsh, detailed review of courts’ administrative agency

The burgeoning growth of the state courts’ staffing agency, coupled with a lack of candor and overlapping responsibilities, has resulted in a bloated agency that needs to be downsized and better focused, according to a harshly critical report from a special committee appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

The panel, composed of judges and government staffing experts, said the Administrative Office of the Courts has “become dysfunctional in many ways. A fundamental overhaul of the agency’s organizational structure is needed.”

The AOC is the staff arm of the courts and answers to the Judicial Council, which is headed by the chief justice. The AOC began in 1961 with 18 workers. Some 30 thirty years later, in 1992, it had 225 employees. It currently has 1,100 employees.

“The sheer size and growth of the AOC were among the most dominant and consistent concerns that surfaced throughout the course of this review,” the Strategic Evaluation Committee said in its 298-page report.

“From a staff of under 300 in 1992, to a staffing level of approximately 430 ten years later, to a total staff level over 1,100 in the 2010–2011 fiscal year, the AOC experienced steady growth in its workforce. To be certain, some of the growth was justifiable and attributable to the monumental transformation of the judicial branch that began in the late 1990s. Compounding the perception that the AOC has grown too large is that it has not been credible and transparent in public and private statements it has made concerning its growth. The development of an oversized staff has resulted in inefficiencies because of overlapping or duplicative responsibilities. The organization needs to be right-sized and become more focused on mandatory and core functions.”

The entire report is available here.

Cantil-Sakauye, who appointed the committee two months after taking office, said in a written statement released by the AOC that she hasn’t “been able to fully digest this voluminous report with its approximately 120 recommendations, but it’s clear how much thought and work went into it. I thank the committee for their great public service.”

“The committee’s information is a snapshot in time about the AOC,” she added. “For instance, it points out that there were 1,100 employees, which include contractors and temporary employees. As of June 30th, the AOC will have approximately 860 employees, including contractors and temporary employees, and further reductions are planned. Even though all of the information the committee reports may not be current, due to the 12 percent budget reduction to the AOC, I decided to release the report today in the interest of transparency, and for the judicial branch to begin the all-important dialogue about how we move forward with these recommendations.”

The report intensifies a long-standing dispute between the AOC and a number of judges who have complained about the AOC’s administrative control. The dissident group, the Alliance of California Judges, has sought greater autonomy for local courts, especially in fiscal decisions.

The committee’s report comes at a critical time for the courts’ administrative system, which came under fire because of a costly, trouble-plagued computer system. Budget cuts already have forced staff layoffs – 180 people in the latest round through the end of next month – and more are all but certain if the state’s budget numbers deteriorate further.

Over the years, changes in the courts’ funding and organization were approved in Sacramento and the AOC responded to those external changes.

However, the “the internal management and growth of the AOC largely went unmonitored. The top-level decision making process of the AOC became insular, with a top-down management style limiting input from those within the organization…. Many of the problems associated with the growth and increased control by the AOC went largely unnoticed during the period when funding to the judicial branch was sufficient and stable. However, as the global and California economies suffered downturns, the state’s budget deficits mounted and the judicial branch sustained unprecedented budget cuts,” the report said.

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