Report From Judges Blasts California Court Bureaucracy

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a sweeping call for reform of the Administrative Office of the Courts, a report from a committee of judges found the agency has been operated as the director's fiefdom, has strayed far from its original path and has been deceptive about finances and personnel. The judges also criticized the bureaucracy as top-heavy, overpaid and badly organized.
     Their long-awaited report proposes a drastic reorganization that includes cutting the staff by one-third and moving the agency from its lavish San Francisco headquarters to a cheaper space in Sacramento. In the 221-page, 11-chapter document, the Strategic Evaluation Committee also recommended cutting high-level positions, closing regional offices and eliminating entire divisions of the vast bureaucracy that sits atop the court system.
     Based on a year-long investigation, the massive, crisply-worded report does not pull its punches.
     It confirms the position of critics on a host of points, including the agency's effort to control the trial courts and their judges and the agency's domination of proceedings before the Judicial Council, the body of judges which is ostensibly in charge of the administrative office staff.
     In a telling point, the report's authors noted that not a single organization chart provided by the administrators showed the Judicial Council in its rightful place at the top of the chart. In drawing an entirely new organization chart for the agency, the committee put the Judicial Council back at the top.
     "A fundamental overhaul of the agency's organizational structure is needed," said the report that has been a year in the making. "Over time, the AOC has amplified its role and has lost its focus on one of its primary roles and core functions, which is providing service to the trial courts."
     The report was released by the committee late on Friday as the Memorial Day weekend was starting.
     
Culture of Control
     
The committee was established last year by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In a statement accompanying the report's release on Friday, she took a neutral position, saying she had not had time to review the report's more than 100 recommendations for specific changes.
     The judges on the committee were appointed in response to widespread anger from trial judges against the large bureaucracy. In their report, the judges highlight what it calls a "culture of control" that has permeated the agency in its dealings with the trial courts.
     "A pervasive feeling in the trial courts is that the AOC developed a culture or attitude of control in its dealings with those in the judicial branch," said the report. "Full input and dissenting viewpoints of courts and judges were generally not sought or believed to be valued by the AOC, even with respect to major branch-wide initiatives concerning technology or financial systems."
     In discussing the control the bureaucrats exercised over the Judicial Council, the lengthy analysis noted that the top-level bureaucrats became highly insular, making decisions with little or no input from judges. "Information was controlled, and dissent was not encouraged," said the report. "Judicial Council meetings were tightly scripted, with limited time for review of materials and for meaningful, open discussion of important issues."
     
Staff Size and Perks
     
In one of the many slams to the agency, the authors focused on the self-indulgence of the staff during a time of severe budget strains and staff cuts in the local trial courts.
     "The AOC announced that it, like the courts, had instituted a one day per month furlough program for its employees; however, unlike courts that involuntarily imposed the furlough without remuneration or offsets, for a six-month period the AOC gave voluntary participants a credit of one day of leave time for each furlough day. Thus AOC employees did not feel the same impact as that experienced by many trial court employees."
     In patient and occasionally elliptical fashion, the report authors lay out the financial gimmickry used by the administrative office on personnel and financial matters.
     For example, the administrative office claimed that it absorbed a 12% cut while the trial courts had taken a 6.8% percent, when in fact a much, much bigger slice had been cut out of trial court budgets.
     "This was not an oversight because the discrepancy had been questioned at an earlier meeting of the Trial Court Budget Working Group, but the AOC continued to use the 6.8 percent figure," wrote the authors at page 40. "A more accurate and credible statement would have been that the trial courts had been subject to a nearly 23 percent reduction in their budgets as a result of the continuing cuts that had occurred over several years."
     "The lack of credibility of messages such as these -- on topics of critical importance to the courts -- results in mistrust between the AOC and the courts," the report concluded.
     Turning to the issue of staff size, the report's conclusions are scathing.
     "A frequently voiced criticism is that the AOC has not been fully transparent or credible in its discussions and public comments about staffing levels, especially as the state's fiscal crisis hit the judicial branch over the last several years. This criticism is valid."
     While the report's authors note that the AOC has ballooned in size, hitting its peak in fiscal year 2010-2011 with 1,121 positions, an AOC spokesperson insisted to Courthouse News last year that the agency employed no more than 877 people. When Courthouse News reported higher staff levels than the spokesperson provided, it was accused of fabricating the higher number, despite evidence to the contrary.
     "The AOC's reporting of staffing levels has been misleading, leading to mistrust of the AOC," the report concluded at page 192. "Disingenuously suggesting that AOC staffing levels have been reduced in response to branch-wide budget and staffing cuts has led to further mistrust and cynicism. The need for greater credibility and transparency in AOC counting and reporting of its staffing levels is undeniable."
     
'Fact Sheet'
     
The report says that a person need look no further than the AOC website for an example of misleading information about staff levels. A "Fact Sheet" from February still appears on the AOC website, saying the administrative office has a staff of "more than 750 serving the courts for the benefit of all Californians."
     "While it is true there was a staff of more than 750 at that time," says the report, "a more accurate statement is that total staffing exceeded 1,000."
     "Finally, the 'Fact Sheet' further omits mention of an additional 124 contract staff then performing the work of regular AOC employees. 'Fact Sheets' stating only partial facts are not credible and do not promote transparency or trust. It is more unfortunate that misleading information about staffing levels has come from the very top levels of the AOC."
     The judges on the committee point out that bureaucrats in the administrative office "are very highly compensated."
     "AOC managers and employees reported that there are numerous situations in which employees are being paid more -- and in some cases, substantially more -- than is appropriate in light of the duties assigned to them," the report says.
     The judges writing the report note that 17 jobs at the administrative office pay more than $175,000 a year in addition to hundreds that are overcompensated.
     "All told, several hundred AOC employees have maximum salary levels of over $100,000 per year," said the report. It recommends cutting the top staff by 50% and cutting overall staff size to somewhere between 680 and 780, which would represent an overall reduction of roughly one-third.
     The report also assails the management structure -- or lack thereof -- in the administrative office. "There are too many high-level, highly compensated managers, and that there are too many divisions," said the report.
     Because there were so many overpaid bosses, meetings are not productive, said the report. There is no agenda, and issues are often left unresolved, leading to an ad-hoc decision making process based on who the director or chief deputy favors.
     This has long been an accusation against the agency from trial judges, saying the administrative office attempted to place favored bureaucrats in head clerk positions at the trial court level and then favored those courts, especially those that adopted the now-defunct IT system for tracking cases, with generous funding allotments.
     "Multiple persons reported that budget prioritization within AOC has sometimes occurred on an ad hoc basis, in the sense that some division directors simply approached the former Administrative Director with budget requests, which were sometimes granted without comprehensive consideration of other agency-wide priorities or cost-benefit analysis," said the report at page 115. "This type of approval process is consistent with criticisms that AOC budget decisions sometimes were made on the basis of whether division directors were regarded as favorites of the Administrative Director."
     
The Money
     
The report further substantiated many judges' concerns about the lack of transparency in the AOC's budget. For years, judges and reporters have been asking questions about the size of the AOC's budget and how it is funded, to little avail.
     In an understated manner, the authors say the agency has not made accurate financial reporting "a priority."
     "Concerns have been expressed both internally and externally that the budget process employed by the AOC is not understandable and is so confusing that it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand what is funded or how it is funded," said the report at pages 182 and 184. "There is currently a complete lack of faith in the fiscal information released by the AOC. It does not appear that management has made accurate and timely financial information a priority."
     That criticism of the agency's handling of money is consistent with a report last year from the Bureau of State Audits that said the administrative office had been concealing the true cost of a controversial IT project called the Court Case Management System.
     The judiciary spent half a billion dollars on the project over nine years before pulling the project's plug two months ago.
     Friday's report also upbraided the agency for that project, siding with the State Auditor in finding that the agency had not planned well for the massively expensive undertaking.
     "In many instances, the AOC has not undertaken necessary business case analyses for branch-wide initiatives and projects, or if it has done so, it has been late in the game, with significant negative fiscal impacts as a result."
     "Although courts experienced budget shortfalls and were required to engage in court closures, seemingly unlimited funding continued for the controversial and costly Court Case Management System (CCMS)," the report continued. "Criticisms over the escalating estimated costs of the CCMS project, and its lack of proper planning and management, merged with broader criticisms and debate concerning the role of the AOC."

Moving to Sacramento
     
The judges also point out that some AOC employees were less than cooperative with the committee's investigation.
     "Morale at the AOC is at an all-time low and that many of its managing and other employees feel unduly criticized," said the report. "As a result, some AOC employees who were interviewed or who responded to surveys were defensive or resisted providing information."
     "Some information provided by the AOC and its divisions was incomplete or non responsive," the report authors added. "The SEC encountered numerous delays in receiving some information."
     The committee's report teems with recommendations, among them that the agency be pared down through the complete overhaul of the AOC's organizational structure, the closure of its regional offices and elimination of a host of positions.
     In suggesting that moving headquarters to Sacramento, the report says, "The high cost of the lease in San Francisco certainly underscores the need for the AOC to evaluate the continued economic viability of that location in the course of conducting its long-range planning."
     "The judicial branch is charged with the responsibility to use taxpayer funds prudently. In this case, the Sacramento lease rates are substantially lower than the space leased in San Francisco. If the AOC had its primary operations in Sacramento, that would place its headquarters in the political capital of California and emphasize the standing of the judicial branch as a co-equal branch of state government."
     In one of its most fundamental recommendations, the committee calls on the Judicial Council and the chief justice to rein in the agency, saying, "The Judicial Council must take an active role in overseeing and monitoring the AOC and demanding transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the AOC's operations and practices."
     Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement late Friday that she has appointed the SEC chair and vice-chair, Assistant Presiding Judge Charles Wachob of Placer County and Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, to sit on the Judicial Council, adding, "I want to make sure that work of the committee is front and center on the Judicial Council's agenda in the coming year."