DANA POINT, Calif. (CN) - Addressing a ballroom full of California trial judges over the weekend, state Rep. Reginald Jones-Sawyer said the biggest enemy of the courts is stagnation, pointing to a recent audit of the judiciary as the "first volley" in improving how the courts serve the taxpayers.
"In many ways that audit blew up what was unseen by a lot of people outside the judiciary. My colleagues, other people, residents of California finally got the opportunity to see inside how the judiciary actually works," Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, said.
The audit the lawmaker championed was taken up by State Auditor Elaine Howle, who in January published findings revealing the Administrative Office of the Courts spent $386 million over four years on statewide services that nearly half of California's 58 trial courts don't use, including $186 million on contractors and consultants.
The blistering 96-page report noted that nine of the AOC's office directors are paid more than the governor, and also pointed to a series of other indulgences that have eroded confidence in the bureaucracy and diminished resources that would have otherwise gone to the trial courts.
Howle also concluded that the AOC's bosses on the Judicial Council have been lax in their oversight of the bureaucracy and its spending.
"In order to maximize the amount of funding to the courts, we expected the Judicial Council and the AOC to have carefully scrutinized its operations and expenditures to make sure that they were necessary, justified and prudent. This was not always the case," Jones-Sawyer said. "After years of crushing deficits and slashing of critical funding to important health and human services in disadvantaged communities throughout California, the last thing the state needed was this kind of disregard for state funds and flat-out waste of millions of taxpayer money."
Jones-Sawyer obtained the audit by unanimous vote of the Legislature's Joint Legislative Audit Committee in 2013. The audit was also championed by AOC critics, including the burgeoning Alliance of California Judges, which had long complained about excessive spending by highly paid bureaucrats at a time when courts up and down the state were closing and services were being cut.
Jones-Sawyer was being honored as "Legislator of the Year" by the alliance at its third annual conference in Dana Point, Calif.
Entitled "The Economics of Law and Punishment," the conference featured speakers like author and political commentator Ruben Navarrette and Enron prosecutor John Hueston. The conference was partially underwritten by George Mason University's Law and Economics Center.
Judge Steve White of Sacramento, president of the alliance, said of Jones-Sawyer: "He is somebody who has fought the battles that we care about. This is a man you want to have in your corner and we've got him in our corner."
Speaking to alliance judges on Saturday, Jones-Sawyer said, "I ultimately nicknamed you the Rebel Alliance. In all fairness, when we talk about the Evil Empire, I look at it not as an individual. The empire is the enemy of doing the same thing over and over again. And not looking at ways we can bring access to justice to people, that's the Evil Empire we're fighting."
He added, "Neither the Judicial Council nor the Administrative Office of the Courts should be exempted from ensuring that every penny of taxpayer money should be spent, wisely efficiently and effectively. Especially when it comes to our overcrowded court system."
In an interview, Jones-Sawyer said Howle's audit was meant to be helpful rather than punitive, as most audits are. Though highly critical, it came with recommendations for reform like paring down the number of contractors and surveying the courts to determine what AOC services they actually need.
"I know what it's like as an elected official to have individuals in my district criticize the Legislature. What I've learned is to actually listen to what dissenters say and not be defensive," Jones Sawyer said.
He added: "I do remember the separate branches of government. It seems like people forgot there was another whole section called checks and balances. We each check and balance each other to ensure that we provide the most resources and most justice to all of our residents."
Jones-Sawyer said he has had a preliminary discussion with California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye about the audit and how to improve the courts.
"She really, really wants to have as her legacy to take the courts to the next level and help them improve," he said.
On April 22, Jones-Sawyer's budget sub-committee will question the Judicial Council and its staff on its progress in implementing the auditor's recommendations.
"What we're trying to get the courts and everybody else to understand is when the rubber meets the road, how many more courts are being opened, how many more people have access to justice, that's the real barometer," the assemblyman said.
In lobbying for more court funding this budget season, some judges and court officials have argued that increased funding in recent years hasn't resulted in restored services because the courts are using that money to stave off layoffs and additional courtroom closures.
"I've been getting mixed messages," Jones-Sawyer said, adding that the first year he chaired the budget subcommittee courts were given an additional $100 million, but services were still cut.
"They're going to have to show me why that was necessary," he said. "If I paid you $100 more than you made last year, you should not be going into bankruptcy the next year."
After a moment of thought, the lawmaker added: "Bureaucracy is just bad. Public service is good, but bureaucracy is bad."
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