SAN FRANCISCO – Divisions within the association representing 2,000 California judges resulted in a neutral position on an Assembly bill that would return fiscal and policy autonomy to local trial courts, but debate among the judges revealed a strong consensus on changing the way the court system is governed at the top level.
“There was really no discussion about either supporting or opposing the bill, said Judge Michael Vicencia. “We were just too divided.”
The judges belonging to the California Judges Association did agree that deep changes need to be made on how the state’s judicial branch is run.
A motion passed Friday said a recent survey of the judges revealed “a passionate and dedicated membership who, while split on how governance issues are addressed, agree overwhelmingly that changes in judicial branch governance are mandated.”
The survey results and 120 pages of corresponding comments from 877 judges who answered the survey were at the forefront of Friday’s discussions in the desert resort of Indian Wells. The survey showed that almost two thirds of the judges are displeased with the judicial leadership’s management of the court system’s administrators.
The individual comments were not released based on a promise of confidentiality to those answering the survey. “CJA will use the comments and the continuing dialog it started to present specific, detailed, and thoughtful recommendations to the Chief, Judicial Council, its membership, and the public,” said the motion passed by the judges.
One Los Angeles judge who serves on the CJA executive board said discussion of Assembly bill 1208 was collegial. The bill sponsored by Assembly member Charles Calderon (D-Montebello) is intended to shift the balance of power from the Administrative Office of the Courts into the hands of local judges.
“On the issue of what to do with AB 1208, the debate was very respectful and very honest and very frank,” said Judge Vicencia who works in Los Angeles Superior Court. He added that the survey results were so close 47 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed that the board could not take an official stance on the bill.
In the last month, controversy arose over a lobbying effort against the bill by CJA’s president, Judge Keith Davis of San Bernardino. Davis has said he was visiting Calderon in his personal capacity. Davis did not immediately return a call for comment regarding the CJA board’s neutral position.
Vicencia said Friday’s discussion instead turned to how to address the judges’ survey comments, which he said generally reflected disapproval with the oversight of the Administrative Office of the Courts by the California judicial branch’s highest body, the Judicial Council.
“Any fair reading of the survey shows pretty significant dissatisfaction with the way the Judicial Council oversees the AOC and the way the Judicial Council is made up and the Judicial Council’s relationship to various courts. We had lots and lots of comments on those very issues, and it comes to us at the same time the Chief Justice is saying, ‘I want to hear about these kinds of things.’ Our concentration is now on that.”
Vicencia said the judges association had promised judges throughout the state that their survey comments would be kept confidential, but the association is currently trying to put together a summary. “I think honestly people didn’t expect so many comments,” he said. “I could not be more impressed with the judges in this state. It is the greatest outpouring judicial opinions that I’ve ever seen on the issue of branch governance.”
A Los Angeles contingent of seven CJA board members sent a written statement to their colleagues outlining three proposals the board put forward in answer to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s request for suggestions on how to reform the judicial branch. The new chief justice, appointed by outgoing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger late last year, has promised a full scale review of the Administrative Office of the Courts and has accepted resignations by key figures tied to the 14-year tenure of Ronald George, the former chief justice.
“It certainly appears to me that this chief justice is a true agent of change,” said Vicencia. “Her calling for all of the judges to step up and comment and make suggestions is remarkable and a breath of fresh air. She’s governing just like George, not Ron George, but George Washington.”
The three specific proposals coming out of Friday’s conference all revolve around dissatisfaction with the the way the judicial branch is governed.
One of the proposals is a sweeping request for control of the 1100-employee Administrative Office of the Courts.
“In order to improve the Judicial Council’s oversight of the AOC,” says the first proposal coming out of the Indian Wells conclave, “change the charge of the Accountability and Efficiency Committee to include oversight and review of any part of the AOC that the committee deems fit. The committee should have its own staff separate from the AOC. Finally, the Judicial Council should annually approve a specific line item AOC budget.”
A second proposal suggests greater influence by the local trial courts in the decisions made by the council.
“Whenever statewide initiatives are implemented,” says proposal number two, “the consent of the affected courts must be obtained and a detailed Memorandum of Understanding delineating the rights and responsibilities of the parties must be agreed upon between the parties.”
Finally, the CJA board recommended that the council change the method of choosing its members.
Proposal number three is to “change the method for choosing members of the Judicial Council to ensure broad democratic representation including regional and court size representation and giving trial courts input in that selection process.”
Vicencia said, “I think there is a real feeling out there that with the method of choosing the members of the Judicial Council right now is current members get together and take nominations and they decide privately, and they make a recommendation and the Chief Justice picks people. That’s not very representative.”
A related controversy broke late last week over an email sent to dozens of judges by a staff attorney with the General Counsel’s office within the Administrative Office of the Courts. The email sought an endorsement of Justice Laurie Zelon for a council seat soon to be vacated as the result of Justice Huffman’s resignation.
“Justice Zelon is seeking the open position on the Judicial Council (which I previously emailed you about). She needs your support. So please take the time to submit your nomination for her, if you are so inclined,” read the email sent by Donna Clay-Conti.
A chastened administrative office issued an immediate apology on Friday, and AOC general counsel Mary Roberts said, “I talked with the responsible attorney who acknowledged her poor judgment and apologized for creating this problem.”
Judge Vicencia called Clay-Conti’s actions “absolutely wrong.”
He added that in his personal view, “The days of the AOC staff picking or influencing anyone who governs the branch or oversees the AOC must end. If anything changes in the branch it has to be that. That is totally inappropriate. And I think a lot of people out there think it happens way too often.”
The influential Los Angeles judge said the fate of AB 1208, spurred largely by dissatisfaction with the way the court’s central administrators have handled the court’s affairs, is dependent on what happens in the next few months. “If we’re able to clean our own house, my guess is the bill won’t pass. If we can’t, then it’s anyone’s guess.”
Regardless of whether the bill passes, Vicencia said, “We are now embarking on a discussion about how to fundamentally change the governance of the branch. Years from now we’re going to look back at this moment and say this is when everything changed, when judges were given a voice on the Judicial Council again and took control in meaningful oversight of the AOC.”