"When Hartley passed away unexpectedly, it's kind of one of those places where you go, "Well if there's anything you thought about doing, you ought to do it. So here I am," he said.
Culhane said that every year he revisits Ronald Dworkin's book "Taking Rights Seriously," and he counts as role models his partner Hansen, along with the late dean of McGeorge Law School Gordon Schaber and the late California Chief Justice Roger Traynor, often described as the greatest jurist in California history.
Culhane and Hansen started their firm Hansen, Boyd, Culhane & Watson in 1977, with the defense of lawyers facing professional liability lawsuits as their primary area of practice. At the same time, Culhane taught courses in professional responsibility at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, which he still does today, and authored an extensive volume of model interrogatories for lawyers. He ran unopposed for a vacant seat on the Sacramento bench in November 2008.
In addition to two terms on the Judicial Council while he was still an attorney, Culhane was vice president of the State Bar Board of Governors, overseeing a massive overhaul of its attorney discipline system. The impetus for reform was partly due to a six-part investigative series by the San Francisco Examiner than ran in 1985 entitled, "The Brotherhood: Justice for Lawyers."
The articles uncovered flagrantly corrupt and surreptitious attorney discipline proceedings and a backlog of 5,000 cases that Culhane said "hadn't even been touched."
So as the budget crisis began to cut into the trial courts, the judge thought his experience might be helpful. "I thought to myself, well for better or worse I may have some background that might be useful to the court."
Both judges had similar takes on the big issues facing the Sacramento court.
In Hight's view, every court presents its own set of unique challenges. For Sacramento, he said the challenges lie in technology and family court.
While wait times to file cases have diminished somewhat, there are still an overwhelming number of family court and unlawful detainer litigants who choose to forego attorney representation, he pointed out. Navigating the system alone is unnerving enough, but many are stymied by the voluminous paperwork.
Hight noted that a domestic violence restraining order is roughly 150 pages long. "The greatest need is in the area of pro pers in family and unlawful detainers. and we just we need more self-help people who can show them how fill out the form," Hight said.
Culhane reflected the same point.
"I just came back to the downtown courthouse after a family law assignment," said Culhane. "The problem there, aside from the pro pers trying to work there way through the form, which is formidable enough, is that, as a result of the budget cuts, there were on some days not employees present to put the response to the motion in the file. I would have the litigants in front me saying they filed their paperwork six weeks ago but there's no human person to pick them up and put them in the file for the court to see. That's how pervasive these budget cuts have been."
Both judges agreed that simplification of such forms will be among their larger priorities in the coming years.
With the demise of a statewide case management project last year, courts up and down the state have been moving in droves to private software vendors. Earlier this year, Sacramento led a consortium of judges and tech staff from around the state to develop a model agreement with three vendors.
Sacramento remains one of a handful of courts that uses the Deloitte-developed Court Case Management System for its civil cases, after the Judicial Council last year axed any further spending on the software, other than maintenance. Hight said the court would like to replace its criminal and family law systems, but whether it keeps CCMS for civil cases is "all a matter of money."
Culhane, who sits on the court's technology committee, elaborated, "Our IT department here has developed a program that sits on top of CCMS that pulls from CCMS and lets us drive it a little easier. So the more pressing needs at the moment are in criminal."
From a technological perspective, the court is treading water, having modified the system to make it workable, but unable to use it for what is quickly becoming the most essential function of court technology -- electronic filing. As it stands, the process for filing electronically through CCMS is so labor intensive, it does not save the court any time.
"The problem with e-filing is that CCMS requires a whole bunch of fields to be filled in," said Hight. "Case number, case name, the parties to be exact, and if the e-filing is not identical to the original case filing, then it doesn't work. CCMS restricts us in that fashion."
That observation matches reporting by Courthouse News from other courts that have adopted the cumbersome software which requires substantially more work and more time than older software systems to do something as simple as docket a new, two-party case.
Hight did not express any desire to become involved in statewide judicial politics, saying he preferred to direct his energy toward addressing the court's immediate needs.
"I'm more interested in managing this court. That's my primary objective. If something occurs on the state level that will help this court then I'd be interested, but otherwise my goal is to manage this court," he said.
As the budget crisis evolved, a doctrine emerged from the Administrative Office of the Courts saying California judges should "speak with one voice," a notion that can be and was interpreted to mean the judges should avoid criticizing the central office's policy line.
While Hight does not reject the concept of speaking with one voice, his own court's needs come first.
"The concept is good," said Hight. "In practicality it may not work as well because courts have different needs. We will endeavor to work cooperatively with everybody but if we see a particular need that we have we will certainly express it. I'm fully prepared to lobby the Governor and the Legislature certainly on behalf of Sacramento.
"We need to think as far outside the box we can on how to improve what we do and get our message out."
Culhane, who just finished a 14-year stint on the Civil and Small Claims Advisory Committee, one of the Judicial Council's many advisory committees, arrived at the same formulation.
"The idea of developing a branch-wide presence and solutions to branch-wide problems is important," said Culhane. "My thinking has always been that to the extent that a court or a judge can contribute that they should do it. Where you can make a contribution you should. At the same time, this committment to trying to do the best we can and bring very best thinking to resolution of statewide problems doesn't mean you turn your back on local problems."
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