Council Cuts Think Tank Dues

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's judiciary slashed the half-million-dollar fee it pays to the National Center for State Courts, a move approved unanimously by the Judicial Council Thursday.
     "Given the level of cumulative budget reductions that we have faced and the need to ensure that we have the ability to staff continuing activities, what we are recommending is a 60 percent reduction of our dues," said Jody Patel, newly appointed Chief of Staff for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     In her presentation to the council, Patel said that last year, the administrative office paid $571,000 in dues to center, which operates as a support group for state courts. This year's fee was set to go even higher, to $582,000.
     "As you can imagine, California being the most populous state, our assessment is larger than any other state in our nation," she said, recommending that the council approve a reduced rate of $232,000 for 2013.
     "I have had discussions with the NCSC, and they've noted that we are not the only state in the country who has paid a reduced amount in light of the fiscal crisis throughout our country."
     The amount paid every year to the national non-profit has drawn criticism in recent years from state judges urging the judiciary to eliminate unnecessary expenditures from the court budget and put all available funds directly toward keeping courthouses running.
     A records request to the central administrative office shows that in addition to $571,000 membership dues, the administrative office, and ultimately the state's taxpayers, shelled out another $32,000 to participate in the center's Consortium for Language Access for the Courts and $7,500 in registration fees for the Court Technology Conference for a total payment to the center of roughly $611,000.
     An April 2012 email from Chad Finke, Director of the AOC's Court Programs and Services Division, to retired Los Angeles Judge Charles Horan said the National Center for State Courts received about $822,000 from the AOC from July 2011 to April 2012.
     "From July 1, 2011, to date the AOC has paid the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) $822,877.05. Of that amount, $571,057 was for California's 2012 annual assessment," Finke wrote. "The remainder of the amount paid to the NCSC in fiscal year 2011-12 is for various other services."
     According to Jesse Rutledge with the National Center for State Courts, those other services include contracting for special projects for the courts.
     In an email, he said, "Assessments paid by the states provide for many of our services, but courts can and do contract for specific projects in their local jurisdictions, and it would take far too long to enumerate that list here, which numbers in the dozens just in recent years. The size and value of those contracts can vary from a few thousand dollars to much larger. Suffice it to say, NCSC earns those contracts in a competitive environment, and we are proud of our record of performing projects that aim to improve the administration of justice in courts across the state of California."
     Rutledge said a few examples of such projects include helping the AOC determine how to best handle court security and threat reporting, at a cost of $98,000.
     Individual trial courts like Los Angeles contracted with the center to assess its juror selection system for $125,000. The center also helped the Merced County Superior Court transition its master calendar system to an individual judge calendar system for $55,000, an amount partially subsidized by a state grant.
     "Projects come in all shapes and sizes, and these are merely examples drawn from projects over many years," Rutledge said.
     On Thursday, Patel told the council that the administrative office currently isn't paying the national center any money beyond its dues. "In the current fiscal year we do not have a contract with NCSC for any additional services," she said.
     The 60 percent reduction is another in a series of cutbacks following harsh funding cuts to the judiciary's budget by the legislature.
     Speaking to the council, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the judiciary's budget woes seem to have unified the state's judges, citing the optimistic mood she felt at this year's annual judges conference in Monterey.
     "I believe that in spite of our difficult budget year and many of the challenges facing the branch and the legal community, that there was a positive tone," said the chief justice. "And I think a feeling at every engagement I attended an optimism in spite of the cuts, and maybe because of them, I think there exists even now a more collaborative effort to do whatever a we can to restore justice to California."
     She then officially swore in retired judge Steven Jahr as the fifth director of the AOC and the first ever to have also served as a judge.
     Also sworn in were new council members Judge James Brandlin of Los Angeles County, Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento County Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside County, Judge Allan Hardcastle of Sonoma County, Judge Morris Jacobson of Alameda County and Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County.
     The council also took up a report from the Summit on Judicial Diversity, which found that while the percentage ethnic minority and women judges has increased slightly since 2006, the judiciary has a long way to go to before the gender and ethnic makeup of the bench fully reflects the state's population.
     "Caucasians comprise less than 40 percent of our state's population. They are more than 72 percent of our bench. African-Americans are about 6.2 percent of the population, with about 5.7 percent of the bench. Asian Pacific islander, 13.1 percent of the population, about 5.8 percent of the bench. And Latinos comprise almost 40 percent of our population, about 8.2 percent representation in our judiciary," said summit chair Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte of Alameda County. She added, "Let's agree it's going to take a long time. Does that mean we do nothing? Or does it mean that we continue incrementally to try to increase diversity on the bench? I think that's the important question for all of us. It's going to be hard. Progress is difficult. And progress is hard and progress takes a long, long time." But, she said, "It is doable."