Cal Council Wary of Open Meetings

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California Judicial Council members are deeply wary of a push from the Legislature to open committee meetings to press and public, as shown in statements at Thursday's council meeting. One of the most powerful judges in the old regime of the former chief justice compared the committees to advisory groups for the state's governor, suggesting neither should be public.
     "I can recall that in the executive branch the senior staff would meet daily and make recommendations that ultimately went to the governor," recalled Justice Marvin Baxter. "Those meetings weren't public because they would chill the conversation."
     Baxter was the appointments secretary for former Governor George Deukmejian, advising on all the governor's judicial appointments. He later chaired the Judicial Council's powerful legislative committee under the former chief justice, Ron George.
     Still a member of the council, he argued at Thursday's meeting that some legislative meetings are not public either. "I think it's important for the rule to be reflective of the processes within the executive branch and the legislative branch," he said.
     A number of judges speaking at Thursday's council meeting agreed that some meetings should be open.
     "We are well aware of how important it is to the public that the judiciary show how money is being spent," said San Diego Judge Kenneth So, who is head of the council's internal committee on legislation.
     Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), who sits on the council through her role as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, encouraged the judges to open up committee meetings, despite their fears and reservations.
     "In the last few years, what we're seeing is a reduction in public trust of our institutions," said Evans. "I believe that trust cannot be restored without some level of transparency. And as difficult as that is, in the long run it's really worthwhile."
     But judges on the council noted that the Legislative Analyst's Office, which issued the statement of budget intent requiring open council meetings, does not itself have open meetings.
     "Certainly the LAO doesn't open up its staff discussions, the local city department doesn't open up their staff discussions," Presiding Judge Brian Walsh of Santa Clara said. "So while we want to embrace the notion that public funds should be decided upon only in public forums, there's a lot of other things we do for good reason for which the public is not an appropriate part of the discussion."
     The push for open meetings is driven by the Legislature and by the way decisions are made in the administration of the courts.
     Judicial Council meetings generally follow a routine where decisions coming out of committees are ratified with perfunctory debate. Monthly reports from the four powerful internal committees are generally vague, particularly so with reports from the committee on technology.
     The leaders of that committee and its underlying task force, both of which meet outside the public eye, defended and promoted a software project that costs California more than a half-billion dollars before it was torpedoed last year, under pressure from the Legislature.
     The Legislature then tacked a requirement onto 2013-14 budget, saying the council must open up its committee meetings. But Governor Jerry Brown followed with a veto, after Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye advocated against the provision.
     In response, the legislative analyst published a statement of budgetary intent, requiring that the council implement an open meeting rule.
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview earlier this week that she supported the concept of an open meeting rule but disagreed with the terms originally drafted by the Legislature.
     She reiterated that position at Thursday's council meeting.
     "Judges have a code of ethics that guides -- really guides -- their input, their membership, their communication because the law requires a judge to be neutral," said Cantil-Sakauye. "And so when this concept came up we were not opposed but we needed to draft this ourselves because we have different considerations."
     "The judicial branch has taken far greater oversight of many, many issues," said the chief justice. "So we wanted to be careful, and we wanted to be inclusive. But we also wanted to make sure that we acted in accord with the canon of ethics."
     In an interview after the meeting, Walsh said, "If there's a committee that can make effective recommendations on the expenditure of funds, in other words, if they say its going to happen, even if they're not making the ultimate decision, sure that should be open. If that's where the sausage is being made, the public is entitled to hear that."