SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Judges from all around California are jumping into an intense lobbying battle over a piece of legislation that would send funds directly to trial courts while taking power away from the central bureaucracy.
Over the course of a few days, one Northern California judge has gathered signatures from 43 head judges who oppose the legislative measure. At the same time, leaders of some of the biggest courts in the state, such as Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco, have refused to sign.
The legislative bill, AB 1208, would send 100% of the money allocated by the Legislature for trial court operations to the trial courts, and it would take power over that purse away from the central governing council and the nearly 1,000-strong bureaucracy that sit atop the court system in California.
With a legislative deadline approaching at the end of this month, the rhetoric on both sides is heating up.
“Judges throughout the state are, frankly, fed up with the constant drumbeat of criticism and vituperation,” wrote Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County who circulated the letter opposing AB 1208.
He added, “When three-quarters of the elected presiding judges of the trial courts oppose it . . . well, what more need be said.”
But along with 15 other courts, Los Angeles, the biggest court in the nation, has not signed the letter. The court’s leadership voted last year to support AB 1208.
“The priority is keeping courts open and able to address disputes that citizens bring to us. That’s the core, number one value,” said L.A. Judge Robert Dukes in an interview. “I’d rather do a trial in a leaky courthouse then not do a trial.”
The presiding judges who signed the letter range from Trinity and Del Norte counties in the far north of California to San Diego and Riverside in the south.
Standing back from the letter are presiding judges in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco and Sacramento.
In terms of population, the judges signing the letter come from counties that have 17 million residents, while those refusing to sign come from counties with roughly 20 million.
“This is not a plebiscite, and presiding judges don’t represent populations,” Rosenberg reacted. “No one has ever suggested that a PJ in a larger populated county should have more voting power than a PJ in a county with a smaller population. We are all equal. That’s part of the democracy of the branch. It’s kind of like the U.S. Senate.”
One of the smaller courts that is not among the signatories is Fresno. Presiding Judge Gary Hoff said he did not sign the letter because some judges in Fresno support the legislation.
“The letter itself I don’t think was specific enough in stating these were the views of the presiding judges personally and not necessarily representing their bench,” he said.
“Speaking on a personal level I oppose AB 1208,” Hoff added. “But we have some on our bench that are supportive of AB 1208 so I thought it would be misleading.”
In San Francisco, the court’s judges voted unanimously to stay neutral on the legislation. And in Sacramento, another court that is missing from Rosenberg’s list, Presiding Judge Lauri Earl said she could not comment on her reasons for not signing the letter, because she wanted to first talk it over with the judges in her court.
The divisions over the legislative bill, and the letter opposing it, fall in part along the lines of size. A frequent refrain from judges in smaller courts is that Los Angeles, with its enormous size, would dominate matters if power was apportioned based on size.
In an interview, Rosenberg said his chief objection to the bill is that a 2/3 majority of the courts — with voting power proportionate to size — must give written approval for major technology and administrative projects.
“How is that democratic?” Rosenberg argued. “You’re going to have the tail wagging the dog.”
“The current decentralized judicial system is set up to maximize local control while providing a system of justice to the public,” he added by email. “Ceding control to the courts in 2 or 3 counties with the largest populations is anathema to local control.”
Dukes in Los Angeles answered, “LA, Sacramento, San Francisco or Orange don’t need to apologize for being large courts. The judges of those courts represent the majority of the constituents in the state. The elected judges of this state who represent the majority citizens who are appearing in their courts now will have some say in what’s being done.”
California’s courts have seen big budget cuts two years in a row, totaling nearly a half-billion dollars. The result is expected to be shuttered courtrooms, mass employee layoffs and physical deterioration at courthouses.
At the same time, the central bureaucracy has spent a half-billion dollars over the last 10 years on an IT project, called the Court Case Management System, that is being used in only a few courts.
That computer project is heavily criticized by many trial judges because of the money it has siphoned away from trial court operations. And that use of precious money remains a central theme in both the debate over the legislation and in the debate over how much representation the big courts should have.
“If a court doesn’t have a computer system it can’t operate,” argued Rosenberg. “There are courts that have failing systems. You can’t operate a court without a case management system.”
Answered Dukes, “Financial decisions are being made which are impacting the vast majority of litigants. That’s wrong and undemocratic. There’s a feeling among trial court judges now that without this type of legislation, decisions are happening that impact our citizens in a negative way because of goals set by a bureaucracy.”
He argued that the bill has been incorrectly construed as changing the structure of branch governance, when in fact is has to do entirely with how money is spent.
AB 1208 has polarized the state’s judges and has drawn fierce opposition from the governing Judicial Council, the big and powerful Administrative Office of the Courts and Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In an inteview in the L.A. Times published Wednesday, the chief justice described the bill as “a hammer over my head for the last year” that would “take away the authority of the Judicial Council.”
A fundamental reorganization of California’s court system took place 15 years ago under the preceding chief justice, Ronald George, who took control of the purse strings and rule-making authority through the central Judicial Council. Before that time, decisions on how to spend the money allocated by the Legislature were made primarily by the local courts.
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye inherited that fundamental change to the system as well as the opposition it generated.
“I admire the chief justice and don’t envy the problems she stepped into,” said Dukes in L.A. “They existed long before her, but coincidentally came to a head around the time she was appointed. The California state budget has driven this and courts have complained to her predecessor and to the prior director of the AOC and nothing was done to rectify them. That’s the reason a budget bill like 1208 is necessary.”
Referring to the 15-year-old centralization of the courts, Dukes added, “Since this system has been in existence it has had such a devastating effect on our court that we operate with 1,000 less employees and 40 less courtrooms. Like other courts, we are consistently underfunded. That’s because the money is getting drained off on projects that everybody but the Administrative Office of the Courts agrees are misguided.”
But Rosenberg in Yolo County argued that the bill is too divisive, saying that instead California’s judges should unite in dealing with California’s governor and his budget.
“We are a branch of government composed of 1,600 constitutional officers,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to speak with one voice. I think it’s fair game for judges to argue and disagree and debate issues within the branch. But once we have done that we should try our best to come together and speak with a unified voice before the governor.”
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