CA Judicial Council Spells Info Request Terms

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s Judicial Council on Friday changed its policy on information requests, in response to growing interest from judges in the judiciary’s financial affairs .
     The council will now play a larger part in dealing with requests pertaining to council policy, and staff for the Administrative Office of the Courts must defer to council members on how to respond.
     The battle over information plays out as part of a larger confrontation between a powerful court bureaucracy and trial court judges critical of the policy and spending choices made by that bureaucracy.
     “It wasn’t until we were realizing the hundreds of hours that were being expended in answering the types of requests that we were seeing, that were, honestly, some people have a lot of time on their hands,” said Judge Mary Ann O’Malley.
      Skeptical of the new policy, Judge David Lampe called it “an example of unwarranted bureaucratic complexity.”
     Retired Judge Charles Horan from Los Angeles, who fought a lengthy information battle with the court bureaucracy earlier this year said rules on information requests were being subverted to withhold information.
     He said he would have to wait and see on Friday’s policy changes.
     “Any system is only as effective as the good faith of the people running it,” said Horan. “That’s what it will boil down to.”
     The language adopted by the council on Friday consists of guidelines on how the administrative office staff should apply the council’s Rule of Court 10.500 titled “Open Access to Public Information.”
     The preamble to that rule states, “The intent is to clarify and expand the public’s right of access to judicial administrative records and must be broadly construed to further the public’s right of access.”
     The guidelines put in place Friday will send requests for information under Rule 10.500 along different paths, primarily based on who is asking.
     If a question comes from the governor or a legislator, it will go to the court lobbyists.
     If a question comes from the press and has to do with policy-making, such as why the director of the court bureaucracy sits on the Judicial Council as a non-voting member, it will by answered by the press liaison.
     If such a question comes from a judge, the new guidelines say, “Refer to Director of Court Operations, Special Services Office, who will consult with Chief’s appointee(s) to determine whether request is within the regular scope of judicial business. If yes, appropriate staff will be notified and should respond. If no, refer to Chief’s appointee.”
     If question comes from member of the public and concerns policy, such as why is the administrative office employs attorneys in China, and if that questions “appears to present a legitimate issue or be appropriate for response,” the guidelines say, “refer to direct of Court Operations, Special Services Office, who will consult with Chief’s appointees(s) to determine whether to respond.”
     “Otherwise,” the guideline continues, “a response is not necessary.”
     Most of the requests for information over the last year came from the Alliance of California Judges, a reform group that has pushed for greater oversight of the bureaucratic agency. Judge Lampe of Kern County is a director of the Alliance and retired Judge Horan is a member.
     The Alliance judges point to the language of Rule 10.500 that went into effect in January 2010, saying the rule should be broadly interpreted to give all citizens access to public information.
     At Friday’s meeting of the Judicial Council, Justice Harry Hull argued that the staff was flummoxed by many of the questions, such as how many days former judges Roger Warren and Leonard Edwards worked as “scholars-in-residence” for the judicial branch.
     At first glance, the question of how many days a particular person worked for a public agency might not seem overwhelming.
     The question concerned a program that paid substantial salaries to “scholars,” whose precise work was unclear. It was attacked by the Alliance judges as a waste of money when trial courts were cutting their operations to the bone in the face of the governor’s budget cuts.
      “Last spring, it became known to some of us on the Council that the AOC did not really know how to handle some of the requests that have been coming to them and how to respond to certain requests,” Hull said during the council meeting.
     He said the questions asked staff to justify council and administrative staff policies, so Hull then took on the job of answering them.
     An example of a question that was referred to Justice Hull was one from retired Judge Horan who asked, “I have been told the AOC will reimburse appellate justices 300 to attend the CJA conference this year. Is that true.”
     “Is AOC also reimbursing for judges,” asked Horan. He also wanted to know who made the decision.
     The conference has been a forum for debate on policies of the court bureaucracy and the council, and those who attend would influence the tenor and outcome of those sometimes heated discussions. Horan’s inquiry ultimately sought to find out if some of those attending the conference were favored with travel expenses.
     His questions, most calling for yes or no replies, were not answered.
     During Friday’s council session, Judge O’Malley of Contra Costa County, a council member who worked on the original information access Rule 10.500, defended the new guidelines.
     “These requests when posted to staff were really difficult to determine,” she said. “For instance, and this is coming from another judicial officer, it really puts staff in a very awkward position. They did try to deal with it for months and months and months. It was amazing what it was they were asking for; some were possibly legitimate requests and some I could not see any logic whatsoever in the request. It got to the point of absurdity. It really did.”
     Chad Finke, Director of the AOC’s Court Programs and Services Division, said, “As Justice Hull pointed out at some point or other, not only did the amount of time become an issue, but the issue came up — is this really appropriate for staff to be responding to these types of questions?”
     The council will revisit the new method in six months, as suggested by Judge Ira Kaufman of Plumas County, to determine whether judges are getting the information they need.
     Reacting to the new guidelines, Lampe suggested the council should have instead kept it simple.
     “The council should simply adopt a policy that says, ‘all staff of the AOC shall respond to requests for information, not privileged, from any constitutional judicial officer as soon as can be reasonably accomplished,” said Lampe, “and to keep the requesting judge informed of the process of gathering information if there will be a delay.’ “
     Horan also said the process did not need to be complicated.
     “This could be worked out if they behave reasonably and really try to be transparent. This was never an insurmountable problem.”
     Horan said that since its adoption, the council has interpreted Rule 10.500 “very narrowly with a view toward withholding information.” He added, “They’ve not been interpreting that rule the way it was meant.”
     He accepted the AOC’s complaint that some questions were beyond its purview, such as “questions as to the Judicial Council’s mental processes,” but noted there were many requests that staff could have answered and didn’t, particularly if they originated with the Alliance.
     Horan said the attitude of council and AOC leadership, including director Judge Steven Jahr, will determine the policy’s success.
     “It’s up to them to make it happen,” he said. “We’re not hard to satisfy. If the Chief Justice and Judge Steve Jahr make it clear that the duty of the Judicial Council and the AOC is to fully cooperate with any lawful request for information, it will get done. It starts at the top.”

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