California's Chief Justice Shares Year-End Sum of Plans, Wishes

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - At a year-end meeting with reporters Tuesday, California's Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye shared her support for the campaign to bring transparency to the inner workings of the Judicial Council, her regret over the cost of a failed court technology project, and the fundamental differences that divide the judiciary and labor.
     She also promoted a new long-term fiscal plan for the courts that she hopes will persuade the governor to restore $1 billion in funding to the judicial branch over five years.
     While the chief justice lobbied against a bill requiring open meetings by Judicial Council committees, she said she always supported the idea but wanted the judiciary to have control over the language in the rule.
     "I wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to draft it first," the chief justice said. "Because I think there are different considerations with judges who are on the advisory committees that draft the proposals for council to consider. In the process of drafting those proposals and deciding if a proposal should even come to council, judges still in their judicial role speak about substantive issues of law."
     Cantil-Sakauye added that judges who sit on advisory groups and court benches serve dual roles.
     "We have a concern about the code of judicial ethics and what judges can and cannot say in the process of a heated argument in the development of a proposal versus what they can and should be saying publicly," the chief justice said.
     The Legislature built the requirement into budget language this year, requiring the Judicial Council to throw open the doors to its plethora of committees, subcommittees, working groups, advisory groups and task forces, but the provision was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Supplemental language was then added by the Legislature, requiring the Judicial Council to report on progress toward writing an open meetings rule by January 2014.
     "So when the governor vetoed the language, I still had my pledge to open up meetings," Cantil-Sakauye said. "I think it will generate better understanding of what we do. I'm hoping it brings the heat down over some of the purported alleged acts of some of the Judicial Council advisory committees. Council has been anxious to do something like this because we feel sometimes that we're not understood even by our own judges."
     Trial judges have criticized governance of the courts in California for a number of years, saying decisions that adversely affect the trial courts are made behind closed doors, then ratified without debate by the full Judicial Council at its public meetings.
     The draft open meetings rule will be taken up for discussion at this week's Judicial Council meeting. In a preview, the chief justice said, "I'm pleased with the progress. I think we're moving at a pretty fast clip, but as you can imagine, there is no unanimity."
     The council will also be reviewing the status of technology projects by individual trial courts.
     With the fall of a very costly statewide computer project, courts up and down the state have been making deals with private vendors to replace their aging case management systems. One reporter asked the chief justice why the state never got on board with PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), a successful federal system that celebrated its 25th anniversary on Tuesday, rather than trying to develop its own system.
     "PACER was a great idea and we probably should have tried to get on board with it back when it was initiated," she said. "California seems to be behind the times in technology. We're aware of that, and we're trying to fix it in a way only California can because we're also the largest and most complicated. Every court probably has a least four different case management systems."
     The failed Court Case Management System was shelved in 2012, having cost the taxpayers more than $500 million with a total projected cost of $1.9 billion by completion. Cantil-Sakauye told reporters Tuesday that in retrospect, it should have ended much sooner.
     "If I knew then what I know now, probably I would have ended CCMS my first month in, financially," she said. "Just knew it would have never played out financially. But I didn't understand it enough, a system that started when I was in superior court. I came to understand it and the feelings around it. I came to realize that if I knew then that we would still be in two and a half years of fiscal free fall, I would have just stanched the bleeding right there. Would have tied the tourniquet right there."
     Lawmakers have come down hard on the judiciary over spending on projects like CCMS, and while the state faces a surplus, Cantil-Sakauye has doubts about whether the governor will be generous with the branch in his January budget.
     "I presume the governor is going to want to be fiscally conservative, parsimonious, in his January budget. But that doesn't stop us from having regular meetings with Department of Finance, showing them charts, showing them our losses, our reductions, what we need and why we need it. We don't agree and we refute their numbers and they refute our numbers. But its an honest, candid conversation. We've also had talks with the governor and he's been cordial and engaging and there have been no promises one way or another," she said.
     But she hopes that a three- to five-year plan will convince the governor and lawmakers of the need to restore funding back to levels prior to 2008, adding $1 billion to the judiciary's budget. This is conservative, she said, noting that the judicial branch consumes only one percent of the state's overall budget.
     "I highly doubt it will be what we get, but it's an honest depiction of what the trial courts need, the Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court, Habeas Corpus Resource Center, the library and staff to the judicial council needs," she said.
     With money tight across the judiciary, trial judges and labor unions have questioned any expenditure that does not go toward keeping trial courts running. In a legislative hearing this year, court workers criticized court closures, staff furloughs and layoffs, all of which impact services to the public. The hearing ended with lawmakers voting to restore funds to the judiciary, on condition that it be used specifically on the trial courts.
     "Frankly at a high level, I don't philosophically understand why we disagree," Cantil-Sakauye told reporters. "I agree across the board that our employees, whether they are organized or not, are underpaid, that they do extra work, with less resources and less time. I think we disagree because they believe we have more money than we do."