SACRAMENTO (CN) – A bill to restore financial control to individual trial courts cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Only one member voted against AB 1208, which its author, Senate Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), said will ensure that the state’s 58 trial courts remain independent and autonomous in deciding how state money is spent.
“I am thrilled with the result,” Calderon said in an interview. “There were a lot of negotiations going on even until the day of the hearing, and by the time we got to the vote it went how I expected it to go.”
At the Tuesday hearing, Calderon testified at length that AB 1208, the Trial Court Rights Act, is a bill of financial-management rights for the trial courts, and will rein in the judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts, a bureaucracy that has drawn ire from judges statewide for its spending, particularly on a mammoth court technology project whose cost is estimated as at least $1.3 billion.
Calderon said the Legislature had directed the Administrative Office of the Courts to draft a trial court bill of rights upon the enactment of the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997.
“They were supposed to do it and if that had happened we would not be here today,” Calderon said.
“The reality is it has not been adopted. I only say that because its important to point out that the Legislature wanted independent decentralized trial courts and it has not been followed.”
Calderon then noted the “number of problems with the AOC,” saying it had grown from a small administration to a “bureaucracy of 1,100 members” which cannot possibly be properly managed by branch leadership on the Judicial Council.
Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe urged the committee to vote in favor of the bill.
Lampe, a director of the Alliance of California Judges, an organization of almost 400 trial judges that sponsored AB 1208, told the Legislature, “We need your help to get back to a balanced system that was promised 13 years ago.”
Lampe said the AOC has diverted millions of dollars that were meant to keep courts running for projects such as its $1.3 billion Court Case Management System.
Judge Steve White, presiding judge of Sacramento Superior Court, said, “We support the idea of a unified court system, but we want the courts to run it, not bureaucrats who do not speak for the courts.”
White spoke of the “self-absorbed priorities of the AOC over the trial courts,” and said that two years ago the AOC asked the Legislature to impose furlough days on the courts while “transferring scores of money to CCMS.”
Judge Bill MacLaughlin, the former presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court, said he was not an Alliance member, but was at the hearing to speak on behalf of his court, which overwhelmingly supports AB 1208.
“I want you to understand this isn’t just an Alliance issue. I represent the establishment,” MacLaughlin said.
MacLaughlin recently was appointed to an oversight committee established by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to investigate the AOC.
MacLaughlin said he had been forced to skip that committee’s first meeting to testify Tuesday.
“Do you know how much money the Judicial Council and the AOC have diverted from court operations in the past 5 fiscal years?” he asked. “The answer is $239 million – almost a quarter of a billion that we have not received to provide service to the public, and the pace is quickening.”
Though the bill made it out of committee, several legislators expressed reservations about intruding on a separate branch of government.
“Why, in light of a new chief justice who has expressed her own concerns and appointed a new committee, why not at least let the chief justice get her feet on the ground?” asked Assemblyman William Monning (D-Monterey).
“I’m willing to be educated should this move forward, but given its current status I won’t be able to support it today.”
Monning abstained from the vote.
Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R-Irvine) also suggested that the Legislature should give Cantil-Sakauye the opportunity deal with the branch’s governance problems without interference.
“We do have a new chief justice chosen in part for some very well-recognized administrative skills,” Wagner said. “What about the argument that she has been on the job only a short period of time?”
Calderon answered: “It is a threshold issue having nothing to do with the issue at hand and everything to do with politics. Nothing in this bill prohibits the chief justice from doing anything. There’s plenty of time for the chief justice to start implementing new policies.”
He added: “It isn’t to give peace a chance; it is to determine whether there can be peace at all. Fundamental to that question is can any chief justice, can any judicial council, control an 1,100-member bureaucracy? That’s what’s at stake here.”
A spokesperson for the Judicial Council sent Courthouse News an email after the hearing saying the AOC actually has 887 employees.
Calderon said he is concerned that the AOC may be leaving the chief in the dark when making fiscal decisions, noting that the Bureau of State Audits has pegged the cost of the Court Case Management System at more than $1.9 billion by the time it’s installed in all 58 trial courts.
“It isn’t a question of the chief justice’s intention,” Calderon said. “It’s whether the chief justice is informed and has the time given her responsibilities, and whether she is informed properly.”
After the hearing, Calderon added: “I’m not taking issue over whether the chief is up to the task. I like the chief justice. I think she’s strong, smart and experienced, but that’s not the issue. It’s whether she or any chief justice can handle a 1,100-member bureaucracy.”
Calderon said that the AOC had recently taken a $200 million dollar branch-wide budget cut imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and added to that number money from fines and fees, thereby reducing its share of the cut from $11 million to $3 million, leaving the trial courts to bear 85 percent of the burden.
“So they took a pro rata cut out of a bigger amount than the governor asked them to cut,” Calderon said after the hearing. “That’s another example of [the AOC] putting their interests before trial court operations, and its the trial courts’ budget that suffers.”
Committee Chairman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who also sits on the Judicial Council, moved to send the bill to the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, where its final language will be drafted.
His only condition was to remove a provision requiring the Judicial Council to allocate money to trial courts according to court size, and obtain legislative approval for all money set aside for statewide court projects. Feuer said he supported another provision requiring the council to get approval from two-thirds of the trial courts before spending money on projects such as CCMS.
“I think that Mr. Calderon has raised some significant issues regarding the governance of the court system that are worth addressing,” Feuer said.
“In this room, we heard a long discussion of CCMS that is indicative of issues that need to be addressed, because that discussion made clear that there are key deficiencies in oversight at a minimum. I think it is consequential that the chief justice inherited issues with which she deserves the opportunity to grapple. She has not had the opportunity. She needs to seize that opportunity.”
In an interview after the hearing, Judge Lampe said he was “very pleased” with the committee’s vote.
“It preserves the real heart of the bill,” Lampe said. “Were there things drafted that didn’t make it? Yes, but this is a process. This is how people get their voices heard. What’s important is that this process is moving forward and we’re not waiting another year.”
He said the Alliance is willing to work with Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, but that AB 1208 deals with issues not being addressed by her new Strategic Evaluation Committee, of which Judge MacLaughlin is a member.
“How the AOC operates does not address what AB 1208 is about,” Lampe said.
He added: “Being on a committee of the Judicial Council is not the answer. The committees are part of the problem. We have committees overseeing other committees. This is about creating a balance between the trial courts on one hand and the Judicial Council on the other hand.”