CA Judges Oppose Bill to Transfer Judgeships

     (CN) – California trial judges are opposing the Judicial Council’s latest political move, the introduction of a last-minute “gut and amend” bill that would allow the council to move five vacant judgeships among county courts.
     The effort has found an ally in the California Legislature with Assembly Member Jay Obernolte, a Republican from San Bernardino, recently signing on as a sponsor for the bill.
     In an interview, Obernolte said the judge shortage issue is personal. Coming from San Bernardino County, Obernolte said he had a front-line view of courthouse closures in Needles, Barstow, and Big Bear Lake, where Obernolte was mayor from 2010-2014.
     “I realized that we in Big Bear had it pretty good because my constituents in Needles had it much worse. Those poor people have to drive 3.5 hours to Victorville to attend court,” he said.
     “There’s no public transit on that route,”Obernolte added. “We’re not talking about big criminal matters, but simple things like child custody hearings. That’s why I’m so passionate about these issues.”
     Obernolte’s bill, AB 2431, will require up to five vacant judgeships to be moved from county courts deemed to have an excess of judgeships to those with too few.
     The bill would authorize the Judicial Council to reallocate judgeships based on a “Judicial Needs Study,” prepared by the Judicial Council “staff,” formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts, in conjunction with the Workload Assessment Advisory Committee.
     The committee held five teleconference meetings last year, which were open to press and public.
      The study examined workloads in the county courts, and how much time is required to resolve each type of case in each county. Based on the results, it appears that the courts in Alameda and Santa Clara County are expected to cede positions to San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
     Referring to the older standard for allocating judgeships, Obernolte said, “The formulas that were used to set the judgeship allocations have not kept with the population changes.”
     The problem, however, is that every county is arguably underfunded and under-judged. A Judicial Council lobbyist said recently that California is short about 270 judges. And no county wants to be told it has too many judicial positions when courts are still struggling with voluminous caseloads.
     There is also the constitutional issue. Article 6, Section 4 of the California Constitution clearly says that authority to set the number of judges for each county rests with the Legislature, and some judges have argued that the Legislature should not be giving up that authority to a body that has a history of making dubious financial and policy decisions.
     One group of reform-minded judges, the Alliance of California Judges, voiced its vehement opposition in a recent statement. “The bill sets a bad precedent — once the Council gets the authority to move around a handful of judges, it will be far easier to sell the Legislature on giving it the authority to make wholesale transfers.”
     The controversy originated in Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2016-17 budget package, where he outlined a plan to move five vacant judicial positions. “This will shift judgeships where the workload is highest without needing to increase the overall number of judges,” said the governor.
     Brown has been emphatic that these vacant judgeships need to be moved before he will agree to fund any new positions.
     “The reason its crafted that way is that the governor said this is the way he prefers we do it,” Obernolte reasoned, pointing to a veto message from a bill Brown rejected last year that would have funded 12 new judgeships already authorized by the Legislature.
     “I am aware that the need for judges in many counties is acute — Riverside and San Bernardino are two clear examples,” Brown wrote. “However, before funding any positions, I intend to work with the Judicial Council to develop a more systemwide approach to balance the workload and the distribution of judgeships around the state.”
     Brown reiterated that position in his budget package this year.
     “The veto language made it clear he would prefer to see us reallocate existing resources than do an allocation for more resources in the court system,” Obernolte said. “That’s why we’re having to do this.”
     The Judicial Council’s committee on legislation voted in early May to support Brown’s budget proposal, while pursuing emergency legislation.
     The vote had been delayed over objections from the longstanding California Judges Association. In a letter, the group had said it would support legislation authorizing a one-time transfer of up to five judicial positions, but only if Brown committed to more funding.
     “Of critical importance, any legislation should require the Legislature to provide additional funding for the recipient courts for personnel, administration and security costs related to these additional judgeships. Likewise, any reallocation methodology should mandate that a ‘donor’ court not lose funding due to losing one or more judicial vacancies. If additional funding is not provided, it is not possible to reallocate judicial positions in a fair and equitable manner,” said the CJA letter.
     “CJA is also concerned with the multiple unintended consequences that may be realized with the transfer of judicial positions from one county to another. For example, the loss of judicial positions may lead to more sitting judges being challenged by those that would have otherwise run for election for one of the eliminated vacant seats, further politicizing and destabilizing the judiciary,” said the letter.
      In a statement this month, the Alliance of California Judges said its members had understood that the committee would wait for the entire Judicial Council to weigh in, and allow for a public comment session. The Alliance letter argued that the committee’s official charge is only to make recommendations to the council.
     The Alliance judges took particular exception to the bill’s history. AB 2341 started out as a bill related to health facilities, a point conceded by legislator Obernolte.
     “We call that a gut and amend,” Obernolte said. “I’m not a huge fan of that process but that was the only way to get this done this year.”
     Obernolte said he has full trust and confidence in the council’s ability to fairly reallocate the positions without overstepping the bounds of its power. “It’s the Judicial Council that has the expertise to decide which courthouses are understaffed and which are overstaffed,” he said. “I think it’s very appropriate that the Judicial Council should make this decision with legislative oversight.”
     Even so, he noted that the bill caps the reallocation level at five.
     “We’re not giving them unlimited authority to make these reassignments. We’re just admitting that misallocations exist,” he said.
     The bill now sits with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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