California Courts in 2013

     It was a news-filled year for the courts in California courts, as they survived huge budget cuts, walked backwards on transparency and slightly forward on reform, and tried to follow the Legislature’s direction to open up court committees.
     In January, the governor gave the courts a reprieve by not cutting their budget even more.
     In the same month, a court task force proposed e-filing rules that gave bureaucrats an excuse to delay press access. When press groups protested, the Judicial Council ignored them as the hold-over head of the task force told media groups that, really, they would be better off.
     While retaining their ability to fight transparency, the tech task force and the council’s technology committee lost a quantum of power in 2013 to a forum of trial court IT directors who drew up a model software contract and picked the top three bidders.
     In February, an old scandal returned as the council over-rode objections from judges and allowed telecommuting by the highly paid mandarins of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     In a companion decision, the council voted to take a look at the salaries of those same bureaucrats but later decided the bureaucrats themselves should conduct the inquiry into their pay. As the years winds down, that report is nowhere in sight.
     In March, the council and the bureaucracy teamed up to continue their fight against transparency by charging journalists $10-per-file whenever they wanted to look at court files. Press objections were again ignored as passive council and active bureaucracy plowed ahead with the idea. The Legislature wisely killed it
     Also in March, the Ninth Circuit heard argument on this news service’s challenge to delays in press access to court records.
     A lawyer for the bureaucracy told Ninth Circuit judges that “no court” provides the press with same-day access, despite that fact that courts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kern, Fresno, Alameda, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Solano do provide the press with same-day access.
     In April, the ghost of an old software boondoggle rose from the grave.
     The head of the council’s technology committee asked trial courts if they would like to “enhance” the old Court Case Management Software, prompting trial court judges to call it a “vampire” and a “money-sucking beast.” The idea died.
     The council then gave four internal committees more control over an octopus of working groups, advisory groups and task forces, a move that tied into another controversy towards the end of 2013, again involving the technology committee.
     In May, the Legislature put $100 million back into the court hopper to cheers from union members, an amount later reduced to $60 million. One legislator said, “I do think things are a little bit better than they were under the previous chief justice.”
     In June, the courts’ long-time general counsel quit, just as the council was about to re-orient her office from that of gatekeeper to servant.
     In July, a judge’s request for a list of the court bureaucracy’s contracts with outside businesses was blocked by the answer that the bureaucrats do not keep their records that way.
     In August, the governor’s finance director told the council that the days when the governor simply signed off on a budget submitted by the courts were gone forever. The chief justice then gave a big raise to the bureaucrats, as she had done two years earlier when she was first appointed.
     Also in August, the Legislature said the courts would receive budget money on condition that they open up their labyrinth of secret decision-making.
     The next month, the Legislature passed a union-backed bill preventing courts from outsourcing jobs to private contractors unless money was saved as a result, later vetoed by the governor.
     In the ruins of the old software program, a tech gold rush took hold in the fall of 2013 as tech companies racked up multi-million-dollar contracts with trial courts.
     In November, council members answered the Legislature’s direction to open their meetings with a rule that contained a long and wide list of exceptions.
     In December, the council elevated its technology committee to the status of internal committee. That move came over complaints from judges who said the leaders of the tech committee and its advisory group should be replaced “based on their track record.”
     And as 2013 drew to a close, the governor appointed 18 new judges in California.

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