Legislative Victory, Growing Strength at Conference's End
LOS ANGELES (CN) - The second annual conference of the 500-member Alliance of California Judges that concluded Tuesday reflected contrasting themes about the trial courts' financial woes and the tide of change sweeping the judiciary.
The conference was enlivened with at-times feverish energy, bolstered by a legislative committee's recent approval of a financial audit examining the Administrative Office of the Courts and how it spends public money. Alliance members had lobbied for the audit, a campaign born out of the AOC's ability to insulate a large staff and give the staff raises while trial courts were making draconian budget cuts, laying off workers and closing courtrooms.
In his closing remarks on Tuesday, Judge David Lampe of Kern County, founding director of the Alliance, said the legislative victory was cause for reflection.
"We exist because we want the local trial courts to be independent and be equal partners in the funding decisions that affect us," Lampe said. "These decisions must be rooted in our communities. As we've talked about here, it's the people of those communities that elect us, we are directly responsible for those people. That's the reason we exist."
He added, "I'm encouraged because I see many new judges joining our organization. New judges, I think, get this. They do have a bit of an independent streak."
The two-day conference on law and economics was in partnership with the George Mason University School of Law. Speakers from out of state were taken aback when California judges described the depths of the funding crisis in the state.
"A saying we're all familiar with is justice delayed is justice denied. How are you doing in California?" asked Henry Butler, a George Mason University law professor. A chorus replied, "It depends!" and "Ask L.A.!"
"What would the people from L.A. say?" asked University of Virginia law professor Jason Johnston.
"It's getting worse," answered Judge Robert Dukes from Los Angeles.
"We've closed ten courthouses in Los Angeles County," added Judge Dan Oki.
"I hear a lot about court congestion in California," Butler said.
"Well there have been dramatic budget cuts in the last two-three years to the court system in California." Johnston said."People who talk about access to justice, traditionally they talk about the supply side, that's you all, the courts, and the demand side, people who want to come into the courts. A lot of traditional access to justice is all about trying to improve demand side, and lower the costs. However, what accounts for variation across the courts?"
"Funding!" the judges shouted.
"Every court has got different funding. That's a whole other story," Judge Susan Lopez-Giss from Los Angeles said. "Don't use economics on this, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with how the allocation of funds have gone, pursuant to an Administrative Office of the Courts which is the reason you're here."
"I don't even know if there's an economic explanation," Johnston said.
"There's a political explanation," Lopez-Giss rejoined.
In an interview following the conference, Judge John Adams of Orange County said participation from Alliance members and non-members had jumped since last year's inaugural conference.
"The comments I received from judges across the state in terms of the caliber of education they received was uniformly outstanding," he said.
"The judicial office can be an isolating office," said Adams. "Part of the process as an institution that represents what I would call the trusted voice of the judiciary is providing an opportunity for our members to gather outside of the court and outside of an email string."
The conjunction between the Alliance conference and the legislative vote for an audit was serendipitous, he said.
"It really allowed for our members to get together after what is an important milestone in our effort to restore as much funding and as much fiscal authority as we can to our local trial courts," Adams said. "We see it as a win-win situation. If the audit finds the AOC have been good stewards, that puts us in good posture to go to the Legislature and governor to ask for funding. If it shows areas of weakness, we can correct those areas and then ask for funding."
"We need to have the air cleared and we need to have a basic understanding so we're all on the same page with our fiscal requirements," he concluded. "And the Alliance has done a yeoman's job in bringing these critical issues to the forefront."