Legislator Calls for Audit of Court Admin Office, Council

     (CN) - Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer on Tuesday asked the Legislature to audit the 800-strong, San Francisco-based bureaucracy of California's courts as well as the agency's boss, the Judicial Council.
     "I have a myriad of things that I want an outside audit to look at so we can stop rearranging the chairs on the Titanic," said Jones-Sawyer in an interview.
     Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, heads the budget subcommittee on public safety that recommends the overall budget for California's courts, a budget that has been subject to massive cuts in recent years. The assembly member requested an audit of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the controversial and powerful bureaucracy that sits over the local courts, by filing a letter with the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
     Prior to sending the letter, Jones-Sawyer had been receiving visits and boxes of information from administrative office officials.
     He said the first ever independent and outside audit will be aimed at the budgets of the Administrative Office of the Courts and the governing Judicial Council to make sure the agency and its leadership are making the most of every dollar.
     "This is not a punitive or 'I got you' audit. There are a lot of people that have a lot of beliefs and an independent audit will put to bed what is really happening," Jones-Sawyer said. "The audit will help me find out a better way of spending the money. It's not about people making assumptions, it's about answering questions."
     The audit was welcome news for state trial judges who have been meeting with Jones-Sawyer since budget hearings concluded last year.
     "This all comes down to transparency," said Judge Susan Lopez-Giss in Los Angeles. "This is what we want to see, if in fact the money that is being allocated is being used in the appropriate way and maximized so that courthouses can stay open."
     Judge Steve White in Sacramento said the priority for the use of public money should be the funding of the courts themselves that resolve the disputes and perform the many legal functions that affect the lives of Californians.
     "If there ever as an operation that screamed out for an audit, it's the continued current level of funding for the administrative operations of the branch, the AOC and the Judicial Council," said White. "Neither the legislature or the Department of Finance has any clear understanding of how the AOC administers its funding internally.
     If the legislative audit committee accepts Jones-Sawyer's request, the audit will be conducted by State Auditor Elaine Howle, who three years ago found extensive fault with the AOC's mismanagement of a massive statewide software project for the courts, called the Court Case Management System.
     Trial judges for years had attacked the enormous amounts of public funds -- totaling more than a half-billion dollars -- being spent on the software project, while the courts were in the middle of a financial crisis. The Judicial Council pulled the plug on the CCMS project in 2012.
     But the administrative office and the Judicial Council that worked with the bureaucracy had developed a spendthrift reputation with the Legislature based on a series of policies. The administrative office had ballooned from a small corps of support staff for judges to a 1,000-strong behemoth that seemed to have its own agenda, high salaries, recurrent raises, well-appointed offices, an insular and opaque process and what trial judges characterized as an arrogant attitude towards the local courts.
     Among the policies that brought censure from the Legislature was a pension system that rewarded the top 30 employees with a 22% pension contribution from public funds with no match on top of already bloated salaries, criticized in a report by an evaluating committee of judges.
     While the courts were in financial crisis and laying off staff, a large majority of administrative office employees were given a 3.5 percent pay raise in 2010 and another 3.5 percent raise in 2013.
     The staff size has been trimmed in the last couple years but, according to statements at a Judicial Council meeting in 2012, still numbered more than 800.
     The Legislature also criticized the lack of transparency at the administrative agency and the council evidenced by an attempt last year to impose a $10-per-file fee on any member of the public or press who wanted to research court records, as well as the secrecy with which the council conducts committee meetings that make policy recommendations.
     Jones-Sawyer says the AOC so far has largely cooperated with his requests for financial documentation and internal audits.
     "I'm looking at eight binders of Judicial Council audits and legislative reports," he said. "They've been really helpful in giving me all the audits that have been done on a regular basis. From what I can tell they've been hitting the mark on being in full compliance so far, based on a criteria they are supposed to meet."
     He said a decision by the Legislature in 1997 unifying California's trial courts under one statewide-funded system may be a fundamental part of the problem.
     "We're locked into these state governmental bureaucracies. Is that inhibiting then from doing their best work? Do we need to look at the structure of the AOC and the Judicial Council, is there a better way of managing it? If you look at how we put this together, the courts were put at a disadvantage," Jones-Sawyer said.
     "We consolidated all these courts and brought them up to the state level," he concluded. "We did it overnight and I don't think we thought it all the way through."
     Lopez-Giss in Los Angeles pointed out that Jones-Sawyer's district in South Los Angeles had suffered directly from the budget cuts and his constituents have a great interest in how the courts are funded.
     "We have enormous respect for his desire to keep courts open," the judge said. "His district has been hit hard. All the funds that could be available to every county should be available and he understands that. We have confidence he's going to time this and do this in an appropriate way."
     In Sacramento, White said the court bureaucracy's budget has been anything but transparent and is highly deserving of a careful audit.
     "The budgets for the AOC and the Judicial Council are rather conclusory and general by way of title and it's unclear on what money is being spent on and what the priorities are," said White who is president of the Alliance of California Judges. "Even if there wasn't evidence of bad practices and mismanagement in the AOC, which there has been, this would be a smart thing to do at this time."
     He added that many of the legislators, when they confer with the leadership in both houses, express concern with funding for the trial courts. "Getting resources to the courts, not the AOC, not the Judicial Council, is on their top three list. It's way up there. One way to address that would be to get an audit."
     On behalf of the Alliance, White sent a letter last month to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, urging her to support an audit. While he did not hear back from the chief justice, she did meet with Jones-Sawyer.
     "I had some initial discussion with the chief justice," said the assembly member who applauds her three-year plan to restore $1.2 billion to the judiciary. "I love her three-year plan, it's a great beginning."
     But he also said the audit will determine whether the judiciary actually needs a full $1.2 billion or if money can be saved by looking at the administrative office budget.
     "Part of it is accountability, most of it is transparency," Jones Sawyer said. "We just can't throw money at it. We have to use this money wisely and efficiently so we get the most bang for our buck."
     "If it's status quo, and you're just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, you're not making it better," he continued. "Whatever we give you, what efficiencies will you get from that? The only way both the legislature and the governor's office will buy into that is if they come back with specific, tangible results as to what that money will actually be used for."
     White said the absence of an independent audit of the AOC is unusual for a state agency, but that lean financial times demand a departure from the status quo.
     "State departments generally would never get away with the superficial and non-transparent accounting of expenditures like the Judicial Council and AOC does," said the Sacramento judge. "The reason why it has been different is we are a separate branch of government. And in flush times, before the recession, nobody much cared because there was money to appropriate."
     "But when it became clear there wasn't enough money to run the courts, then it mattered," White concluded. "I would say it always mattered, but it matters in a compelling way when you have people driving four to five hours to get to a courthouse because of closures."