Rebranding the Administrative Office of Courts

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's chief justice announced Friday that the often criticized and ridiculed Administrative Office of the Courts is casting off its name because of what judges called a "perception crisis" in the Legislature, where the court budget is decided. The agency is not expected to change in personnel or function but it will now be called part of the Judicial Council.
     The Judicial Council already exists, as a group of judges, court officials and others who vote on rules, allocate funds and hand out awards.
     The idea of changing the agency's name was originally conceived by former chief justice Ron George years ago. This week's belated adoption of the idea ran into immediate criticism from a group of trial judges who said it allows inept bureaucrats "to hide behind the robes of judges."
     In her announcement Friday, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, "Unifying the council and its staff under one name, Judicial Council, will create more clarity and transparency."
     The justification for the name change is that the staff really works for the Judicial Council, so why not make that clear.
     But trial judges have for years said it is the other way around, that the staff is the titular tail that wags the council dog.
     The chief justice appoints 14 of the council's 20 voting members. The state bar appoints four voting members and two legislators also sit and vote on the council, although they are rarely present. Terms run for three years, but the members can be reappointed by the chief justice without limit.
     They meet briefly and intermittently and vote on matters presented to them largely based on staff preparation. In nearly all instances, the council then votes in favor, in most cases unanimously.
     In the public meeting of the council on Friday, council member Mary Ann O'Malley, a judge from Contra Costa County, said the name change would help with lobbying members of the Legislature.
     "When I went to Sacramento to lobby for funds for the branch, somehow people thought that money would be going to the AOC and money would be going to the branch and money would be going to all these separate entities when you spent all the time trying to say, 'you know, we're one and we just need the funds to keep our branch as a whole going.'"
     The judiciary saw a $145 million boost in the state budget that Governor Jerry Brown signed earlier this month. But that fell far short of the $266 million Cantil-Sakauye said was necessary for California courts to "tread water."
     At Friday's council session, AOC Director Steven Jahr, whose future title is not clear, said, "Retiring the name AOC will produce a perceptual change, or perhaps a cultural change. Yet under the substantive law, it makes no change at all. The name is superfluous."
     He added that the former chief justice had originally proposed the idea.
     "Chief Justice George called me into his chambers and he engaged me in a conversation about changing the name of the Administrative Office of the Courts," Jahr said. "He observed that the name was confusing. The staff to the council does not administer the courts. So we sat down at the justices' table in his chambers and wrote out a variety of different names, trying to find a substitute name that would be both descriptive and also evidence the relationship between the council and its staff."
     Jahr said he and George were unsuccessful in renaming the AOC, while the bureaucracy continued to grow from 225 employees in 1992 to its peak of 1,100 in 2012. But as the staff size burgeoned, it was seen by trial court judges throughout the state as pushing its own agenda, independent of the council.
     The huge agency was also the target of heavy criticism over the way it spent public money, including lavish pensions for top AOC officials, raises for AOC employees in times of great hardship for the courts, and enormous sums wasted on a software called the Court Case Management System, which was scrapped in 2012.
     The leading organization in criticizing the agency under its former name was the Alliance of California Judges, a reform group made up of roughly 500 judges.
     Judge Maryanne Gilliard from Sacramento, an Alliance director, said the name change was not a matter of transparency, but was instead the opposite, an effort to cloak the agency's true nature.
     "It allows in a more brazen manner unelected bureaucrats to hide behind the robes of judges," said Gilliard. "You can call it whatever you want to call it, but at the end of the day it's the same people in charge."
     "For at least the last 17 years, the AOC has been the tail that has wagged the dog. Subsuming their name and function within the term Judicial Council will not change that fact," the judge added.
     She said the name change is an effort to bury the agency's past, so that when the staff goes to the Legislature hat in hand, "they are not saddled with the brand that gave them a $500 million IT failure. It's a clear attempt to rebrand what is a failing operation."
     Recently the Alliance pushed for and obtained a formal audit of the AOC by the Bureau of State Audits, the same group that audited CCMS. The audit is being sponsored by Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer Sr. (D-Los Angeles) and should be finished by October.
     In an email statement, Jones-Sawyer said, "This is an important step toward clarifying the roles and responsibilities for who is to be held accountable for the management of the state's courts. The audit of the Courts that I requested earlier this year, which is due to be completed this Fall, is in line with what the Courts have just announced."
     The Judicial Council is expected to pass the amendment at its next meeting at the end of July.