CA Judges & Court Workers Blast Pay Proposal

     (CN) — Judges and court officials throughout California have united against a proposal to standardize salaries for the state’s trial court employees, saying it’s likely to be incredibly costly and won’t do much to improve service.
     The idea to study uniform classification and compensation levels was suggested by the Commission on the Future of the California Court System, set up last year by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to plot the course of California’s trial courts for the next 10 years.
     Michael Roddy, the head clerk at San Diego Superior Court, told the commission at a public comment session in Los Angeles on Monday that though the Lockyer Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 established statewide funding for the courts, there is no corresponding statewide employment structure for court staff.
     “While much has been accomplished to achieve the goals of the Trial Court Funding Act, there is little consistency and predictability and equity relating to areas of employment,” Roddy said.
     Roddy is a member of the commission’s Fiscal/Court Administration Working Group, where the proposal originated. He told the full commission there are “significant differences” in pay for court employees who do similar jobs throughout the state.
     But the idea of homogenizing the way employees are classified and paid doesn’t sit well with California’s judges and court administrators.
     Sherri Carter, head clerk at Los Angeles Superior Court, said she opposes the idea for several reasons, including the cost of simply conducting a study to create uniform classification and salary structures statewide.
     “A class and compensation study of this magnitude, that would include 58 counties, would be incredibly expensive,” Carter said, noting that the proposal does not identify a source of funding for the study.
     Carter said proposal would cripple innovation and stifle the ability of courts to solve their own fiscal problems creatively.
     “During the Great Recession, Los Angeles had to reduce its workforce by 25 percent. Today we are re-engineering our entire court, in every litigation area, in an effort to become more efficient. We are integrating automation, we are streamlining processes, and it will touch every position in the court. The court could not have done either of these big changes if there would have been a statewide class and comp structure in place,” Carter said.
     “I believe one major strength of the California trial court system is our ability to promptly, effectively, efficiently and creatively serve our local needs. The governor has challenged us to be innovative. I believe that [this] concept will cripple the branch’s ability to meet this challenge.”
     Presiding Judge Elizabeth Johnson, of Trinity County, said her small court thrives on the flexibility of its staff.
     “We have a group of clerks who are wonderful generalists. They do everything from probate to traffic and they do it well. And they serve the counter, they work in the courtroom, they take collections, and they do a little bit of self-help.
     “With a uniform class and compensation system, this flexibility to adapt would be severely compromised,” Johnson said.
     Carter also said the proposal is inconsistent with the California Constitution, an opinion shared by the reformist group, the Alliance California Judges, which also weighed in.
     In a letter to Futures Commission Chairwoman Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan, Alliance President Judge Steve White cited Government Code § 77001, a constitutional provision granting local courts the authority to manage their own operations and personnel.
     “We are baffled by the rationale offered for this concept,” White wrote. “The concept’s authors assert, with no evidentiary support, that local variation in employee pay and classification somehow affects ‘how courts’ users are served.’ We fail to see how. There is no valid reason why a court clerk in Imperial County should be given the same title and pay as a clerk in San Francisco. Their duties and working conditions may vary widely. Their costs of living are vastly different.
     “Any attempt to impose uniformity on employee pay and classification would render meaningless the mandate contained in Government Code, § 77001, of ‘a decentralized system of trial court management’ with ‘local authority and responsibility of trial courts to manage day-to-day operations’ and ‘countywide administration of the trial courts.’ If local courts can’t set pay grades and salaries and negotiate with organized labor, they aren’t really administering much of anything.”
     At Monday’s comment session, Presiding Judge Risë Jones Pichon, of Santa Clara County, said a uniform statewide employment structure would have done little to help end a recent eight-day strike of 400 court employees, who walked out in early August in a wage dispute.
     “One would think that I would be here to say that we applaud a uniform classification and compensation study and system, but no, we don’t,” Pichon said. “There was not anything in the proposal that would have helped us with an impending strike.”
     Pichon’s court is one of 54 that signed a letter opposing the concept.
     “I think that is very unusual, but speaks to the fact that we all agree that this isn’t a way to improve access to justice or to improve service levels,” Pichon told the commission.
     Eleven labor unions representing California court employees also blasted the idea, saying a proposal that assumes uniformity to be better than the localized system demonstrates lack of understanding about how the courts work.
     “The trial courts are varied and the needs of local communities are varied,” the unions wrote in a letter to Corrigan. “The very nature of local employment allows trial courts to tailor their employment needs to the demands of the court and their communities, and establish salaries based on the local labor market and local costs of living. This concept alleges variance in wages and classification titles somehow impacts services. However, there is no evidence whatsoever to support this allegation.”
     The unions, which include the Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and employee associations in Orange, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties, called the idea a power grab by the centralized court bureaucracy, now called the Judicial Council staff.
     “We view this concept as nothing more than a backdoor effort to undo current law and give a centralized bureaucracy with a questionable performance and transparency history the ability to attain more power over the administration of trial courts and trial court employees,” their letter said.
     At the close of Monday’s hearing, Corrigan said none of the concepts discussed — which included giving judges the discretion to reduce fines and fees, reducing “non-serious” misdemeanors to infractions, and using digital recording rather than court reporters in some hearings — are firmly established, and the commission’s job is only to make recommendations to the chief justice and note concerns and opposition to the ideas presented in its final report.
     “There is nothing etched in stone as of yet,” Corrigan said. “We are in the process of trying to figure out what might work and what wouldn’t work, and what we are not anticipating, as other aspects of these questions come forward.”

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