Judicial Council Reforms Legal Office

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - At its meeting Friday, the Judicial Council unanimously adopted reforms to the legal arm of the Administrative Office of the Courts, over a year after the release of a report that recommended restructuring the legal office to become more service-oriented toward the trial courts and less of a policy influencing gatekeeper to the council.
     The head of a committee that recommended reforms said he approved of the proposed changes, but he warned that the council should take a closer look at its use of outside lawyers who racked up $6 million in bills last year.
     Changes were recommended by the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of judges commissioned by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In their report last year, they said the former Office of the General Counsel, recently renamed the Legal Services Office, had grown too bloated and top-heavy.
     The judges also recommended that the legal office's use of expensive outside law firms in litigation undergo a cost-benefit analysis, and that expenditures be strictly monitored.
     The reorganization will split the office into three departments, each headed by a managing attorney. The move is an effort to streamline the office, found to be too disorganized with too many supervisors. The departments will handle litigation and labor, business operations and legal opinions.
     Justice Douglas Miller and attorney Edith Matthai, both on the council, presented the proposed changes, noting that the council will receive a report next year in March to determine whether the changes are holding the office accountable, particularly when it uses outside counsel.
     "This will be the template next year to hold their feet to the fire," Miller said.
     The reforms come as current Chief Counsel Mary Roberts prepares for retirement at the end of the year. The office has already seen some changes in the reduction of its staff, from over 50 attorneys to 38, with 29 in San Francisco, six in Los Angeles and two in Sacramento. Eight attorneys telecommute.
     Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, a member of both the SEC and the Judicial Council, said the SEC's report was about changing the culture at the administrative agency, and its legal office.
     "Culture change-that is really but the report has done. It has people talking and changing the way that we do business," McCabe said.
     He added he wanted to see more analysis of the cost of retaining outside counsel for certain legal subject areas in the next year.
     "And a year from now what I would expect and I would be almost demanding -- what kind of analysis have you done? I don't want to see the Ouija board. I want to see an analysis," he said. "Then, I think under that framework and coupled with a new person who will be at the head of that, let's see what they can do next year."
     Assistant Presiding Judge Charles Wachob of Placer, head of the SEC and a council member, said he approved of the changes, but added that the extensive use of outside counsel should be strictly scrutinized, noting that the legal office spent $29 million from 2006-2011 on outside counsel.
     "This is not a small deal," said Wachob. "Obviously there is a need for some type of monitoring of how that goes. The focus of the recommendations wasn't not to have outside counsel or not to use them or not to have anybody looking over a case, but it was to focus on a total cost benefit analysis across the board. So, what is being recommended is that there is a managing attorney charged with responsibility for looking to see if outside counsel is being used appropriately. I would not want to miss an opportunity for a little tighter oversight by the council as a whole on the total amount of outside counsel expenditures," Wachob said.
     Friday's council meeting follows Governor Jerry Brown's signing of the 13-14 budget bill, giving $60 million in additional funding to the judicial branch for the trial courts. Brown blue-penciled a budget provision passed by the legislature requiring the Judicial Council to open all of its meetings to the public, including those of its many sub-committees and advisory groups. Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye told reporters that she had lobbied against that provision, but would look into opening more meetings next year.
     On Friday, Justice Miller said he and the chief justice were committed to transparency on the council, and that his Executive & Planning committee, one of the council's four internal committees, would see that commitment through. "The chief justice and I gave a commitment to work as fast as we could in this regard. This is a commitment that we both made and that E&P will follow through on."
     The council also passed a recommendation to let the state's presiding judges elect their own committee chair. The head of Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee is currently chosen by the chief justice, but the committee has been pushing for elections by majority vote since last year. Its chair also sits on the full Judicial Council as a voting member.
     "The TCPJAC believes this rule change is important to ensure that the presiding judges have an opportunity to identify their choice for chair, that all presiding judges have an equal opportunity to serve as chair, and that the entire membership have an equal vote in electing its leaders," a report submitted to the council said.
     The changes were not up for discussion on the council's agenda, but was passed by a unanimous vote of the council as a consent item.