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California Courts in 2013

It was a news-filled year for the courts in California, as they survived huge budget cuts and walked backwards on transparency and slightly forward on reform as the Legislature told them to open a warren of closed 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 technology 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 that the inquiry should be conducted by the bureaucrats themselves. As the years winds down, the inquiry seems to have stalled.

In March, the council and the administrative office teamed up to continue their fight against transparency by charging journalists $10 per file every time they wanted to look at public records. 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 the challenge by Courthouse News to delays in press access to court records in Ventura.

A lawyer hired by the court administrative office told the Ninth Circuit judges that "no court" provides the press with same-day access, despite the 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 compare it to a vampire and a "money-sucking beast."

The idea died.

The council then gave four internal committees more control over an octopus of lesser working groups and task forces, a move that tied into a later controversy that once again involved 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 administrative office contracts with outside companies was blocked by the argument that the bureaucrats don't 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 the courts' budget were gone forever. The chief justice then gave a big pay raise to the bureaucrats, as she had done two years earlier when 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 is saved as a result.

The governor vetoed it.

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 call for open committees with a proposed rule that contained a long and wide list of exceptions.

In December, the council elevated its technology committee to the status of internal committee, igniting a blast from judges who said the leaders of the tech committee and its task force had "proven themselves incompetent" and should be replaced.

And as 2013 drew to a close, the governor appointed 20 new judges in California.

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