(CN) - The California Assembly's powerful budget committee is scheduled on Wednesday to take up an audit of judicial spending that represents the culmination of years of criticism and anger over millions of dollars wasted by the administrative bureaucracy of California's courts.
The path to tomorrow's meeting was cleared by State Auditor Elaine Howle who in January published a withering report on spending by the judicial bureaucracy, blasting its self indulgences, including a fleet of unneeded cars, excessive catering bills, lavish pension perks for the top brass and enormous salaries far above those in the executive branch.
Howle concluded that the bureaucracy, called the Administrative Office of the Courts, operated largely unchecked, with the Judicial Council acting more in a "ministerial," or rubber stamp, capacity.
Following on the audit, the independent Legislative Analyst's Office published a budget analysis in February recommending greater legislative control over billions of dollars spent on the courts. "The Legislature has no assurance that the proposed funds will be used in a manner consistent with its priorities," said the analysis.
The analysis pointed to a particular court fund that is dipped into for special projects but which devotes the lion's share of its money to technology, including the maintenance of the remnants of a disastrous software project that wasted a half-billion dollars in public money.
That special fund, called the Improvement and Modernization Fund, is currently on the brink of insolvency. It has taken in $44 million this year but court officials have spent $66 million, much of it for maintenance of the remnants of the now-defunct software project called the Court Case Management System.
As one judge put it, the court bureaucracy continues to spend money "like a drunken sailor."
Overall funding for the California courts peaked in 2010 at roughly $4 billion and then fell year by year to $3.3 billion in 2012. It has gradually increased since then, and is expected to reach $3.7 billion in fiscal year 2015-16, with Governor Jerry Brown recently proposing an additional $90 million specifically for the trial courts.
The budget analysis said trial courts should account for how they spend those public funds -- before and after they receive the money. It also recommended the Legislature establish standards to measure how the courts are doing their job.
Anita Lee with the Legislative Analyst's Office said in an interview, "The Legislature has the power of appropriation and it is its responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used in a cost effective manner."
But some California judges have bridled at the notion that independent California courts should be forced to follow priorities dictated by lawmakers.
"Each trial court should be given flexibility to decide where the money should be spent. I can't imagine how a cookie cutter approach could be used with trial court funding," said Judge Joan Weber, president of the California Judges Association, in an email.
"I know all 58 trial courts strive to spend all taxpayer money judiciously. I think it would be very difficult to come up with one set of legislative priorities for all 58 trial courts. Through this devastating $1.2 billion cut in funding for the branch, the trial courts have had to make cuts individually based on the needs of their communities," she wrote.