Judge vs. Judge: Trial jurists chafe at statewide system

When hundreds of California judges gathered this month in Palm Springs, the hot topic wasn’t the law, it was the anger of some local judges at a court administrative system that they believe has turned them into cogs in a machine.

The issue has deep roots: California’s trial courts traditionally have local creatures. Seeking to streamline and unify the system – and save money – the state in 1997 during Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration reworked the three-tier system of Justice, Municipal and Superior Courts into one, and even acquired the very buildings in which the courts were housed. Fees and fines were divided up with the locals, the state set up funds for court operations and construction and a statewide administration took over. The idea was to ensure equal access to justice and more efficiently manage money in the 58 counties’ courts.

But the reorganization grated on some judges who complained about a loss of control. They saw then-state Chief Justice Ronald George – a Wilson appointee – as the architect of a move to place more power in the Administrative Office of the Courts, the managerial arm of the court system that ultimately answers to the chief justice through the Judicial Council.  

The AOC bureaucracy has ballooned from 268 employees to more than 1,100 and serves as the conduit for state support for the courts. But critics say part of that money goes to statewide programs with little or no review. So the judges are pushing legislation to place more authority in the hands of the locals, giving each trial court authority over its spending, consistent with state requirements and fiscal diligence.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, George’s newly confirmed successor, opposes the effort.

“We don’t need legislation to solve our conflict. I’ve said to (the bill’s author) personally that respectfully I oppose this bill because it’s a governance issue, and that means we solve our problems,” she said, according to comments provided by her office.

The chief justice also said she does support legislative financial oversight within the judicial branch, and firmly believes individual trial courts should control their own money.
“The presiding judges are the bosses and they know best the needs and flexibility of their courts. I was a trial judge and you need to have local control of that,” she added.
Others aren’t convinced.

“The truth is that since 1997, the AOC has seized, and been ceded, much power and in return has received no serious or meaningful oversight by the council,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a director of the Alliance, wrote in a March 15 statement posted on the Alliance website. She said the Judicial Council – 15 of its 21 members appointed by the chief justice – is merely a rubber stamp for the AOC. “No AOC staff recommendation has ever been rejected by the Judicial Council.”

“The AOC is simply out of control. Its excesses have harmed the judiciary’s reputation immeasurably,” she added.

The entire squabble – there are many in the Capitol – simmered largely unknown to the public and likely would have stayed that way but for a report by State Auditor Elaine Howle, who answers to the Legislature.

In February, she released a scathing audit on the finances and operation of a newly developed court computer system, noting that cost overruns could reach $1.9 billion. The rebel judges had long complained about the costs and direction of the system, but Howle’s audit put the issue front and center in the Capitol, where the state budget is awash in red ink.Howle’s audit was prompted in large measure by investigative hearings conducted by the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review.

A private audit firm hired by the judiciary, meanwhile, estimated the cost overruns at $1.3 billion – far lower than Howle’s estimate – and concluded the system could save $300 million annually. The disparity, however, left the dissident judges deeply suspicious. Howle, in an unusual move, reviewed the private audit’s findings and noted a number of items that weren’t included in the private review.

“Basically, we said, ‘Here are things that they didn’t include,'” Howle said. “For example, we said you have to consider the costs you have already incurred to develop those systems. That was $500 million right there. We were just trying to tell the Legislature that.”

Existing law allows local jurisdictions control over their finances, notes Philip Carrizosa, a spokesman for the AOC.

Under the 1997 Act, he said, the Judicial Council “set up a number of policies and procedures in recognition of the right and ability of local courts to manage their own affairs.”

“Once we give them the money, they decide how it is they are going to spend it, they hire and fire their own employees, based on their money and what they deem is fit,” he said.

Computers and governance would appear to have little in common. But in fact, the state has a long and dismal history of acquiring and developing new technology and some of the bitterest political fights in the Capitol have been over computer meltdowns. In a year with a $15 billion budget hole and Draconian cuts looming, the fight over judicial governance is intensified.

The political repercussions of the latest dispute were almost immediate.

After Howle’s audit appeared, the AOC’s long-serving executive officer William Vickrey resigned his position. He had announced last year that he intended to step down, but the combination of Howle’s report and Vickrey’s departure dramatically increased Capitol attention on the issue.

The issue also has become tangled in Capitol politics. Supporters of the existing system see Republican partisans lurking.  Gilliard, for example, is married to a prominent GOP political consultant and former lawmaker Audra Strickland, a conservative Republican from Ventura County, has been a leading critic of the AOC.

But Democrats are among those in the faction of dissident judges, say insiders, although their numbers – indeed the numbers of all the dissidents, is unclear.

But the issue in the Capitol had escalated beyond the dollars. A bill carried by Assemblyman Chuck Calderon, D-Whittier, would transfer administrative and fiscal authority to the locals.

Negotiations over Calderon’s bill are under way, but the Assembly Rules Committee’s decision to assign the bill to the Assembly Oversight Committee caught political observers. That committee specializes in investigations and, until now, was not even authorized to hear bills. In fact, under an agreement with an earlier speaker the committee didn’t have to hear bills but could focus instead on investigations.

But the committee is scheduled to hear Calderon’s bill on April 27, a week before the Judiciary Committee, the customary panel for such a measure. The Oversight Committee has probed AOC-linked issues before.

The Rules Committee’s decision to refer Calderon’s bill to two policy committees also raised eyebrows. Double referrals often reflect attempts to derail or delay legislation, suggesting that the bill – which has yet to be amended – could be in trouble.

 But however the political battle shakes out, the issue for the Judicial Council comes down to tracking the money.

“All we ask for is reports to see how these expenditures are going so we can monitor and make sure the courts are staying within their budget,” Carrizosa said.

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