SACRAMENTO (CN) – California’s Assembly passed AB 1208 on Monday afternoon, voting 41-23 for a bill that weakens the power of the judiciary’s central bureaucracy and ensures that trial courts receive money intended for them in the budget.
During a period of debate before the vote, lawmakers in favor of the bill spoke passionately about waste and mismanagement in the Administrative Office of the Courts, which Assembly member Nathan Fletcher called “a failed institution that is failing the trial courts it is entrusted to protect. We’ve seen mismanagement, an unwillingness to change and reform.”
“We cannot sit idly by and watch an organization continue to waste taxpayer funds,” Fletcher, R-San Diego, said. “We need to send a clear signal to the AOC that reform is coming.”
A reform-oriented group of judges in the Alliance of California Judges have criticized the way money is spent and the way decisions are made by the Administrative Office of the Courts. They have been a major force behind the legislation.
“We are very gratified with the vote and we look forward to moving the process forward,” said Kern County Judge David Lampe, who has explained and defended the bill’s provisions to legislators.
The bill, AB 1208, was authored by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, last year. The bill has drawn the ire of the bureaucrats, as well as Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who has been head of the judiciary for about a year. A strong argument raised by the bill’s opponents has been that the chief has not been given enough time to get the bureaucracy’s alleged over spending under control.
But on the Assembly floor Monday, Calderon said “I gave her more time when I didn’t take this bill up last year. It’s been nearly a year and nothing has changed.”
Assembly member Donald Wagner, R-Orange, said he had been “lobbied long and hard on this bill by both sides.” The Assembly Judiciary Committee vice-chair said he supported the bill, as it “allows local, elected officials to control at the local level the money we have said they are entitled to” and “limits this unaccountable bureaucracy.”
Assembly member Alyson Huber, who voted for the bill, said the Legislature’s decision to centralize trial court funding in 1997 caused the fight over the judiciary’s purse strings. “The Legislature caused this problem and we need to help fix it,” Huber, D-Eldorado Hills, said.
The impetus for much of the bill’s support has been a withering audit from the State Auditor last year of the AOC’s $1.9 billion statewide court computer project called the Court Case Management System.
Assembly member Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said he did not support AB 1208, but agreed that CCMS had been mismanaged. Alejo, who last year called for defunding of the project, said on Monday that after seeing court employees being laid off and furloughed and courtrooms being closed, “it was upsetting that money was being moved elsewhere.”
He added, “Nobody disagreed with the need for CCMS. The problem was that the costs skyrocketed. It was out of control. It was totally mishandled. But this bill is not the way to go to address those concerns. We must take a time out on CCMS, but its the time for the leadership of our courts to make the changes.”
Assembly member Mike Feuer, who voted against AB 1208, said the bill “is a distraction from the fundamental issues from what should be our obligation, a court system that is open in a constitutional democracy.”
Feuer, who has a key position as chair of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said that giving local courts control of their budgets could lead to cuts in interpreter programs and court self-help centers. “It says to each trial court that you have unilateral discretion in your budget,” Feuer, D-Los Angeles, said. “This bill takes away the certainty of uniformity.”
The Service Employees International Union, a powerful force in the Legislature, issued a statement that served as rebuttal to Feuer’s bid for uniformity.
“A fair and accessible justice system is a hallmark of a civil society,” said Alameda County court worker Debbi Pearson.
“The AOC has lost sight of our justice system’s priorities, misspending billions on poorly managed IT and construction projects and gold-plated perks for top officials,” said Pearson in a statement released by the SEIU. “Restoring balance in trial court funding is the only way to keep courtrooms open to families and businesses seeking justice and to repair the trust the AOC has broken with taxpayers and the public.”
In a quick press release, the Alliance said, “It is a very difficult time for the courts. We hope that this will now be a new opportunity for the chief justice and the Judicial Council to accept our longstanding request to meet and discuss a fair resolution of the issues.”
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said late Monday afternoon, “People who know the facts know that this is no victory for Californians, for our state courts, or for equal access to justice. Our focus now turns to the Senate where we will continue to disseminate current and accurate information about the needs of the trial courts and the people of our state and the detrimental impact that this bill will have on meeting those needs. I thank all of those who have worked so hard on behalf of a fair justice system and who will, I know, continue to do so because of their commitment to the equal administration of justice across the state.”