SAN FRANCISCO (CN) With roughly $2 billion at stake, a group of trial court judges argues in a report published Wednesday that California’s court bureaucrats should have their ranks gutted.
The trial judges are pushing for legislation that would direct more money to the local courts, a measure that is fundamentally opposed by the state’s chief justice and the council she leads.
“The Legislature must act to protect our trial courts,” said a 20-page report by the Alliance of California Judges. “These courts are the heart and lifeblood of a vital judicial system. The erosion of their power and authority must stop.”
The report savages the officials in the Administrative Office of the Courts over their perceived arrogance and inability to safeguard public monies, describing them as “bloated, unresponsive and wasteful.”
Sacramento Judge Maryanne Gilliard, who is a director in the Alliance, said her group’s report is being sent to all the judges in California. The roughly 400 judges within the Alliance have received an electronic version.
The e-version of the report features a video message from Judge David Lampe of Kern county, another Alliance director. “The problem is not simply lack of money,” he says in the video “but poor spending priorities by a central bureaucracy.”
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 bloated bureaucracy. The way the Legislature now allocates the money, the judges argue, almost 2/3 is spent at the discretion of bureaucrats who waste hundreds of millions on pet projects and use their financial power to favor friends and punish enemies.
That bureaucracy is characterized in the report almost as a royal court.
“The opulent and spacious work site of the Administrative Office of the Courts is indefensible when compared to the relative shabbiness we ask jurors to deliberate in,” said one Sacramento judge in a survey earlier this year.
“Their growth appears to be unlimited based on the addition of more and more functions that they can usurp,” said another.
“AOC management is arrogant and retaliatory,” wrote a third.
“The AOC leaders are arrogant and dismissive of judges and act as though the judges are subservient,” said an Orange County judge.
The central argument made by the Alliance judges is that a bill that parallels their proposal, Assembly Bill 1208, is primarily fiscal in nature, an area traditionally within the realm of legislative power.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the administrators and allies in the Legislature stress the need for court independence from the whims of politics and argue that legislation telling the courts how to spend the money threatens their independence. They staunchly oppose AB 1208.
A key legislator on court matters, Representative Bonnie Lowenthal, said at a judges conference in Long Beach this summer that she respected the independence of the judges. “If the Legislature sees mismanagement,” she warned, “that’s another thing.”
The Alliance report drives on that distinction, laying out a series of financial “fiascos” by the administrators
In its dueling report, the Judicial Council, led by the chief justice, says the bill is “an inappropriate intrusion into the fundamental governance of the judicial branch.” The council says it recognizes the Legislature’s oversight authority but AB 1208 goes far outside that role and “dictates how the branch is to govern and manage itself.”
The council is opting for a very different strategy than the Alliance, pushing the Legislature for more money while defending against any legislation that would specifically direct that money.
But many judges, including trial court presiding judges outside the Alliance, think that strategy is unlikely to succeed in a year when California has again fallen billions short on tax money.
The attack from the Alliance judges is sharp, briskly worded and clear.
They bang on an incident that briefly caused shouting at this summer’s conference of the California Judges Association in Long Beach.
The 2009 incident involves a move by the bureaucracy to insert a last minute “trailer bill” during an intense budget battle in the Legislature that would have transferred nearly all the power over money directly to the Judicial Council, which generally follows the will of the chief justice and the administrative office.
In the uproar that followed that gambit, administrators first tried to blame the state’s finance department, which denied responsibility, and then said it was all a big mistake. The shouting at the Long Beach conference involved the veil of darkness that has been drawn over the trailer bill’s author.
An appellate judge moderating that session said that he knew the author but did not feel free to provide the name. As a result, the mystery continues.
After replaying the trailer bill matter, the Alliance report blasts the “CCMS Fiasco,” involving the half-billion already spent on the Court Case Management System, an IT system that is operational in only a few of the state’s courts.
The report notes that none of that money was budgeted by the Legislature for that purpose. “That means that the entire cost of the project has been paid for with money otherwise available to support the trial courts,” said the Alliance report.
In quick succession, the report attacks the “Court Construction Fiasco” and the “Court Maintenance Fiasco.”
It notes the exorbitant court construction costs, reported by Courthouse News Service, that are far higher than court construction in any other state. On court maintenance, the Alliance report notes the many expenses that on their face appear ridiculous, including payment of $149 for one worker to escort another through a courthouse, $178 to replace batteries in a clock, and the routine payment of more than $150 to replace a light bulb.
By painting a picture of incompetence and self-indulgence in the handling of public money, the report authors provide, in line with Lowenthal’s warning, the reason for the Legislature to act.
The report describes a stark division within the judicial branch, with judges from San Francisco, Sacramento, Bakersfield and Los Angeles on one side of the fiscal fight and the chief justice, the administrators and much of the council on the other.
At a July meeting of the Judicial Council, the members discussed an allocation of $150 million from the Legislature for “mitigation” of the effects of last year’s severe $350 million cut to the overall court budget.
The administrators allocated less than half that mitigation money for local court operations.
The Alliance, the California Judges Association and individual judges including David Lampe in Kern County, Katherine Feinstein in San Francisco and Laurie Earl in Sacramento argued for sending the rest of the mitigation money to the trial courts so they could beef up reserves with which to weather the coming financial storm.
Judges from Los Angeles, who had seats on the Judicial Council, then put that same proposal up for a vote. It was roundly rejected by the chief justice and the rest of the council.
“The action of the Judicial Council and the Chief Justice,” said the Alliance report, “therefore ignored 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.”
The report also draws a portrait of self-indulgent minor potentates within the administration.
“In the last year, 80 percent of all AOC employees received a retroactive pay raise. The 30 top paid employees, who earn from approximately $140,000 to $217,000 per year, make no personal contribution to their retirement plans, which are completely provided at public expense.”
The report’s authors did not point out that those retirement plans are padded at the extremely high rate of 22% of salary per year, and that the top-loaded nature of the system that favors the highest administrators is outlawed under federal law.
Those same foxes continue to guard the hen house of public funds, the report suggests.
In allocating the Legislature’s cuts to the court budget this summer, the Judicial Council largely followed the recommendation of the Administrative Office of the Courts. “There were no independent fiscal advisers, auditors or financial experts consulted. The AOC the very bureaucracy that had a vested interest in protecting itself from the budget ax was given the responsibility of suggesting how the cuts could best be absorbed.”
One of the central recommendations by the reformist judges is that the bureaucracy be cut fully in half.
They note that the staff of the administrative office has more than tripled since 1997 and that the bureaucracy continues to play hide-and-seek with the actual number of people on the payroll. “The AOC pays far more than 1,100 people,” says the Alliance report. “Unfortunately, the way the AOC maintains records obfuscates the actual number of workers.”
In recommending that a much larger share of the $2.2 billion spent on the courts annually be used for local court operations, the authors said centralized power is the enemy of the ancient common law system.
Towards the end of their report, they quote from one of the most famous professors in American law, Oliver Wendell Holmes. “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,” said Holmes. “The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.”