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CA Judges Reject Oversight of Administrators

(CN) - In a sharp repudiation of the council that leads California's courts, a resounding majority of the state's judges declared Thursday their dissatisfaction with the council's oversight of the Administrative Office of the Courts and, by an even larger majority, have rejected an IT system that is draining the courts' coffers, according to a survey conducted by the California Judges Association.

A total of 62-33 percent said they were dissatisfied with how the Judicial Council has fulfilled its role supervising the Administrative Office of the Courts, and 79-16 percent said they were dissatisfied with the handling of a statewide IT project for the courts.

New Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has promised a top-to-bottom review of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which serves as the policy-making bureaucracy for the judicial branch. The justice has already accepted resignations from a series of key figures strongly associated with the regime of her predecessor, Ronald George.

 One judge who has been unabashedly critical of the AOC said he expected the results to show a sharper divide. "I would have loved a lopsided win, but I'm not going to quibble," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan said. "I'll take what we got. I'm as happy as can be."

"[Today] is going to go down on my calendar that those in leadership positions - the last day they'll ever be able to claim these problems are being pointed out by a small minority of judges," Horan added.

The poll, sent out only two weeks ago, is expected to be one of the deciding factors in whether the organization will officially support or oppose AB 1208, the Trial Court Rights Act sponsored by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Los Angeles). The bill is intended to transfer more power to individual courts from the AOC and its head, the Judicial Council. Of the over 2,000 CJA members polled, 877 judges responded, or about 34 percent, and most were from large courts with over 80 judges.

When the poll was first disseminated, Horan and others complained that one question was slanted to elicit a response in opposition to the bill. That question asked judges whether they believed judicial branch governance "should remain within the judicial branch itself, and not become a function of external political processes."

Calderon had called the question "loaded," and Horan said it was pushed through by CJA leadership at the last minute. Judge Steve White in Sacramento, a member of the CJA's executive board, had said the question was "a push question to get a certain response for political purposes."

Today, Horan said that, notwithstanding the question, the poll results showed 47 percent of California judges who returned the survey support the bill in some form, and he would count that as a victory. "A majority of judges who had a position on AB 1208 supported it," he said.

The survey results also exposed the general view among the state's judges that the AOC may be out of control. For over a year, Horan and others active in the Alliance of California Judges have criticized the agency's spending practices, particularly on a statewide computer project that is expected to cost $1.9 billion. That Court Case Management System has been called into question by California legislators, who voted last month to require the AOC to bring in an independent consultant to determine its feasibility. A scathing report by the state auditor also revealed gross mismanagement of the project by AOC leadership.

An overwhelming majority of the judges who responded to the CJA's survey, 79 percent, were generally or somewhat dissatisfied with the Judicial Council's oversight of the AOC regarding the IT project. About 62 percent of responding judges said they were generally or somewhat dissatisfied with oversight of the AOC overall.

"Significant majorities are unhappy with the current governance system - I don't know how else to say this," Judge Horan said. He added that these disclosures were telling, since the CJA is an organization that "is known for being very AOC friendly."

The CJA will discuss the results of the survey at their meeting tomorrow in Indian Wells, Calif. The organization is also expected to release more detailed responses to the survey by tomorrow. CJA President Judge Keith Davis of San Bernardino was unavailable for comment, as he is in Indian Wells for the CJA Mid-Year Conference.

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