SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – By unanimous vote, California’s Judicial Council rejected a controversial bill that would send a greater share of the overall court budget to local trial courts.
The council that sits atop California’ courts also belittled a labor union’s support for the legislation that would starve funding for the powerful centralized bureaucracy of the courts.
Political maneuvering over the bill is intense. The principal argument in opposition to the bill is that it interferes with the independence of the judiciary. Backing the bill, the reformist Alliance of California Judges has now amended the bill to undercut that argument.
State Senator Noreen Evans, who is a key legislative ally of the chief justice and the administrative office, warned at Tuesday’s meeting that the bill, AB1208, now has the support of the Service Employees International Union.
“When the SEIU came and indicated its support, were they specific about what iteration of the bill they were in support of?” asked Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
“They were in support of the bill as amended and I asked for a copy of the amendments and they didn’t have them,” Evans replied.
“They are in support of something they are not in possession of?” Cantil-Sakauye asked, laughing.
“Yes. They’re in support of the bill as it will be amended,” Evans said, eliciting groans from around the council table.
Reached while on vacation, the union’s lobbyist Michelle Castro reacted diplomatically, saying that Evan’s portrayal of their conversation is based on a “misunderstanding.”
“We support AB 1208 in its latest iteration that was in print already,” Castro said.
“What I said to Evans was we supported AB 1208,” she added. “I did tell her that my understanding was that the Alliance of California Judges was working on some additional amendments but we had not yet seen them.”
“We continue to support AB 1208 as it stands in print right now,” Castro told Courthouse News.
Tuesday was the second day of the council’s December business meeting with the most volatile issues up for discussion. After voting to oppose the bill that would send more money to trial courts, the council voted to bail out a struggling trial court in San Joaquin County with $2 million.
San Joaquin’s Presiding Judge Robin Appel was not able to respond to a question sent Wednesday morning on whether she supported AB1208.
In anticipation of the council meeting, the Alliance published a 20-page report last week blasting the bureaucracy and making the case for the reform legislation. The central proposal by the reformist judges is that 100% of the money allocated by the Legislature for running trial courts should be sent to the trial courts instead of being diverted to pay for a bureaucracy described as “bloated, arrogant and wasteful.”
A majority of the members of an older judges group, the California Judges Association, voted in favor of the bill in a poll of members earlier this year. Major trial courts, including Los Angeles, have endorsed the bill.
The Alliance report said the council’s continuing opposition to the bill ignores “the requests of Los Angeles judges, San Francisco judges, Sacramento judges, Kern judges, court employees, and the two organizations that together comprise virtually all of the trial judges of California.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, the chief lobbyist for the Administrative Office of the Courts and the council repeated the argument that AB 1208 “intrudes upon the manner of how the judicial branch governs itself.”
For example, said lobbyist Curt Child, the council could not direct any trial court operation money towards IT projects until the council had written approval from courts representing 2/3 of the state’s judges. “That would essentially give the veto to two or three courts,” said Child in apparent reference to Los Angeles and other big courts.
“AB 1208 would eliminate authority of the council to transfer funding and assist courts that are confronting unanticipated budget shortfalls,” he said. “It takes the decision making authority for funding key projects from the council and puts it in the hands of as few as two or three courts.”
Rejecting the council’s digs, Kern County Judge David Lampe argued that the current version of AB1208 was provided in the Alliance’s report last week through a link that was sent by email to every judge in the state. He said the bill had indeed been amended, as is often the case during the legislative process, to be more acceptable to all legislators.
“There was an amendment done because of the criticism that it was allowing the Legislature to interfere with branch governance,” Lampe said. “It actually makes the bill less controversial.”
He said the principal change involves removing language that restated the California code regarding trial court independence.
Lampe also rejected the lobbyist’s argument that the bill would allow local courts to transfer funds between programs without any oversight. “A statement like that is playing on people’s fears,” Lampe said. The legislation, he said, “just gives courts flexibility to manage what they think is important.”
He added that the bill is intended to counter the paternalism of central administrators who suggest “that somehow constitutionally elected officers aren’t going to do the jobs, even though we’re the ones who stand for election.”
Lampe pointed out that all the trial courts that originally supported the bill still support it.
One of those courts is the massive Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest trial court in the nation. Representing that court on the council, Judge David Wesley was the lone abstention on Tuesday’s vote to oppose the bill.
Another council member , Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, expressed support for the work of the trial courts while voting to oppose AB1208.
“Are there issues that concern trial judges with regard to budgets and other matters in this branch? Certainly there are,” said Rosenberg.
“The constitution of California does envision a role, an important role for judicial council but also envisions a decentralized system where trial courts retain a measure of independence,” he argued. “That’s the way the structure is built and we have to work within that structure,” he said.
Another council member Sacramento Judge David De Alba attempted to undercut his court’s earlier endorsement of the bill. “There was never any formal proposal placed before the Sacramento bench to endorse AB 1208,” he argued, “much less any discussion amongst the judges on that bench.”
De Alba was named to the council earlier this year by the chief justice.
Sacramento’s Presiding Judge Steve White rejected his argument.
“As Presiding Judge I personally requested input from my bench with respect to AB 1208,” said White. “By a significant margin, my court supported the measure.”
Last week, White and fellow Alliance directors sent a letter recommending a neutral position on the bill to Justice Marvin Baxter who is chair of the council committee that handles legislative matters.
“During the entire time I’ve been on council, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where we’ve faced a more difficult challenge, especially in terms of the budget. We are in a very, very difficult situation and my message is this is the time to be unified,” Baxter said Tuesday.
“And there is not the time for legislators to hear divergent views on collateral issues,” he said. “This is the time when it’s in our best interest as a judicial branch to speak with one voice. So, perhaps these other divisive issues could be delayed for some time in the future. All I’m saying is that what’s on our plate this legislative session is basically survival as an independent branch of government.”