PALO ALTO (CN) - A call to action closed the first conference of the Alliance of California Judges with a rousing speech by Judge Steve White on Sunday calling for greater democracy in governing the courts.
The conference included a well-attended ethics panel that focused on the practice of law's devolution towards the barnyard, and on changes to the judicial canons of conduct that could be used to discipline trial judges who don't take instruction from the central bureaucrats of California's judicial system.
"The design is at fault," White inveighed at the close. "When you have a design that provides for no accountability except to one person, not to the other branches of government, the public or the judges that are the judiciary, it's got to be changed."
The Alliance has battled the Administrative Office of the Courts on a range of fronts, from the half-billion dollars spent on a defunct software system to the bureaucracy's size, pay and efforts to influence policy.
"When you have a situation when the people who are responsible for the malfeasance, or just plain sloppiness of administration, and when the governance doesn't repudiate it and doesn't take strong steps to make sure it doesn't occur," said White, "it's a strong indication that the governance structure has got to be changed."
The current structure for governing the courts is that the chief justice appoints judges to the Judicial Council which then votes on policy issues.
White pressed for change in that structure either through a constitutional amendment that would allows judges to vote for council members or through legislation that would limit the council's power to advising the chief justice and passing on court rules.
"We must lead the way to achieve one or the other," he concluded. "This is a call to action."
The Alliance counts roughly 400 members, but does not disclose the membership list. A hand count of those attending an ethics panel on Sunday came to more than 100 judges, an estimate was confirmed by conference organizers.
Formed in 2009, the group has pressed for the independence of trial courts and resisted the effort to centralize finances and policy in the administrative office, pressing on the office's financial mistakes and what the trial judges describe as arrogance and bloat.
It stands alongside the much older and larger California Judges Association, but in recent years the two organizations have taken similar positions on the enormous amounts of money spent on a failed software system and the need for reform in the administrative office.
The maiden conference for the Alliance was co-sponsored by the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University School of Law and took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Palo Alto. Despite the heavy subject matter, the brightly-lit conference and dining rooms were leavened with camaraderie and humor.
The keynote speaker on Saturday evening was Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carlos Bea who advised the trial judges on how to create a bulletproof record for appellate review. He advised discussing evidence in their rulings even if they found it unconvincing.
The judge described the Alliance as "an organization whose weight is increasingly being felt in California judicial circles."
Sunday's ethics panel was a hot ticket for the conference. According to judges involved in judicial politics, former chief justice Ron George would use ethics charges to punish judges who spoke against policies enforced by his administrative office.