CA Judges Battling Over Trial Court Autonomy

      SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a lobbying effort that has caused a strong reaction among judges around the state, the head of the California Judges Association is arguing against a bill that would return fiscal and policy autonomy to the state’s 58 trial courts.




     The president of the judges group, Keith Davis, says he is arguing against the legislation in his capacity as an individual judge from San Bernardino while the author of the legislation, Assembly Member Charles Calderon, says that was not his impression.
     “I have never taken a public position as CJA president with regard to AB 1208 and I made it very clear that I was speaking to him as judge from San Bernardino County, not as CJA president,” Davis said.
     The judge said he had always been careful to avoid taking a public position on the bill in his role as the head of the judges organization. “You can look far and wide and you will not see anywhere that I have ever taken a position for or against AB 1208 as CJA president.”
     The author of the legislation, Los Angeles Democrat Charles Calderon, saw things differently.
     “The implication, whether he intended it or not, was that I’m president of the CJA which represents the judges, and we don’t have a problem with the current system,” said Calderon. “I’m under the understanding that there are a number of trial judges out there that feel strongly that some changes should be made.”
     According to Calderon, Davis came to his office “literally on the day of day or the day before I had put the bill across the desk.” Calderon said he understood Davis to be in opposition to AB 1208 or any bill that would transfer greater funding authority to the local courts.
     “I understood him to generally be against any bill that would change any of the funding structure that currently exists,” said Calderon. The legislator said the gist of the judge’s argument was that, “You have to remember what it was like, it was a feudal system and we don’t want to go back to those days.”
     Those in the judiciary who oppose AB 1208, and who correspondingly support the current centralization of fiscal and policy authority, have argued that the bill would split the courts into judicial fiefdoms, a position articulated by Appellate Justice Richard Huffman in a letter recently published in the San Diego Union Tribune.
     “That appears to be the company line. I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people that have come to talk to me in opposition to the bill,” Calderon said. The Los Angeles Democrat added that during his conversation with Davis, he pushed him on whether or not Davis wanted to see counties in control of their own funding. “We went back and forth on that,” he said.
     While Davis’s lobbying effort against AB 1208 titled the Trial Court Rights Act has brought criticism from the judges who support the measure, there does not appear to be a consensus among the board members of the California Judges Association over whether to support or oppose the bill. Some judges strongly favor it while others are sharply critical.
     Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White, who said he was surprised when Calderon told him about his meeting with Davis.
     “I expressed my surprise because the CJA had not taken a position on AB 1208, and the majority leader said he was sure the judge had identified himself as the president of the CJA. I’m unaware of any precedent for that,” White said. “If CJA has no position on a measure, how can the CJA president represent otherwise.”
     Retired Judge Gregory O’Brien of Los Angeles Superior Court is also a CJA board member, but he chose not to comment on the actions by the current president. “I think as a former CJA president I would rather not make a comment on something that so directly involves one of my successors.”
     However, said O’Brien, he supports the bill as a former trial judge. “I do strongly support AB 1208. I think it’s important to restore some measure of autonomy to the trial courts,” he said.
     On the other side of the coin, Judge Ronald Taylor from Riverside was strongly supportive of Davis’s leadership at the judges association.
     “I think Judge Davis is doing an outstanding job representing the views of the CJA,” said Taylor. He said his personal view on the bill is that “it would invite the Legislature in California to try to seek solutions to problems we might have within the branch and it’s something that should be resolved within the branch itself.”
     “I think it’s now time for judges to get involved in this discussion on how AB 1208 is going to impact our state,” he added. “I believe our new chief justice should be given an opportunity to deal with some of these problems. We are depriving her of the opportunity to deal with the issues that are perceived by some that need to be addressed.”
     At the top of the judiciary hierarchy, the new chief justice in California has staked out a position clearly against the Trial Court Rights Act.
     In an interview last week, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she opposes the bill, believing the judicial branch’s problems can be solved without new legislation. “I think the substance of the bill raises some good points, I also think those good points can be solved in-house amongst the branch,” she said.
     “I have always had and still have an open door to please come together to solve this,” said the chief justice. “We don’t need legislation to solve our conflict. I’ve said to Calderon personally that respectfully I oppose this bill because it’s a governance issue, and that means we solve our problems.”
     If the state’s trial court judges support the bill, said Taylor in Riverside, it would send the message that judges don’t support the new chief justice and “it would undermine her credibility with the Legislature. It’s not fair to put her in this position.”
     The bill arose out of what many judges have seen as a power grab and extraordinarily wasteful spending from the judicial branch’s bureaucracy, and many are fed up with a $1.9 billion IT project called the Court Case Management System, which is supposed to digitally link the state’s 58 trial courts.
     Over the years, the staff of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which deals with projects like CCMS and generally oversees the trial courts, has grown to about 1,100. The Trial Court Rights Act is intended to decrease the power of that bureaucracy, Calderon said in an earlier interview.
     But since the bill’s introduction last month, debate over its merits has been heated. As a result, the judges organization took the rare move of conducting a poll of its members.
     That in turn generated further controversy.
     Some judges believe one particular question on the survey was slanted to elicit answers opposing AB 1208. The question asks whether you agree or disagree “that judicial branch governance should remain within the judicial branch itself, and not become a function of external political processes.” The question would appear to call for a “yes” answer.
     Calderon called it a “loaded question” and Judge O’Brien called it “mischievous.”
     One board member, former Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Tim McCoy, a drafter of the survey, sent out an email saying he strongly objected to the question being in the survey at all, adding that it was “pushed through.”
     He said, “While the other primary substantive questions are essentially open-ended, Question IV is what many may consider a ‘push’ question, appearing to promote a particular point of view to the exclusion of important substantive variations and alternatives.”
     CJA head Davis said he could not comment on the survey or any particular question on the survey.
     In calls to 14 board members from all over California, many board members said they were currently speaking with the judges in their courts on the bill, and thus could not speak to the press.
     The board of the CJA is expected to vote on its stance sometime next month. However, several courts have officially endorsed the bill, ranging from Kern County in the Central Valley to Amador and Mariposa in Gold Rush country and Sacramento in the Delta region. Four former presiding judges from the state’s behemoth, Los Angeles County, have also written to endorse the bill.
     A coalition of 21 judges from all over the state have also written a letter expressing support. “To suggest that AB 1208 is fundamentally unfair to our new Chief Justice, or that it will somehow impair her ability to lead, is unfounded,” said the letter. “To the contrary, this legislation will free her, and the council, from an impossible oversight role. No single Justice of the Supreme Court, and no part-time council, can effectively oversee an 1100 member bureaucracy with an increasingly apparent appetite for encroachment into the affairs of the judiciary.”

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