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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Changing of the Guard Set for Sacramento’s Superior Court

SACRAMENTO (CN) - If there is one theory Sacramento Judge Robert Hight embraces as he takes up the mantle of presiding judge in January, it is to make good use of hard times. "A good crisis is always the best place to make major changes," Hight said.

After four years of deep budget cuts, Sacramento Superior Court is struggling to regain its financial footing. The news that Governor Jerry Brown fully intends to sweep the financial reserves of all 58 trial courts this year has come as a devastating financial blow.

"The biggest challenge is clearly budget and how can we provide a level of services the public deserves given the budget that we have," Hight said. "I'm hopeful through the budgetary process this year we'll be able to get a few more dollars for the bench as a whole and weather the hard times with the hope that good times are around the corner."

By the end of this fiscal year, the court will be sitting on roughly $5 million in reserves, but if Brown's plan goes through, it will only be able to hold onto one percent of that amount.

Hight moves into the presiding judge's seat at the beginning of 2014, after working as assistant presiding judge for the last two years. Throughout California, the posts of presiding judge and assistant presiding judge last for two years each.

He looks ahead to his term with the simple, yet daunting objective of providing the best service to the public on a budget that has been cut back every year over the last four.

"Keeping the doors open will be a major accomplishment in and of itself," he said. "I'd like to provide better public service. Is there some way we can re-engineer what we do to make it easier on the public, less work on us. I'm going to be looking at each piece of the work we do to try to figure out how we can help the public and at the same time diminish our work load."

It's a view shared by incoming Assistant Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane.

"We're dealing with severely diminished resources and ever expanding case load and mandated functions," said Culhane. "How can we be more efficient and more responsive with less resources."

Both judges spoke in Hight's chambers with a big desk and book cases lining two of the Spartan office's white walls on the sixth floor of the aging courthouse, near the train station and federal court and a little distance from Capitol Mall where the Legislature sits.

As the trial court in the state's capital, Sacramento Superior takes in many of the more highly political suits filed in California, such as last year's challenge by legislators to the governor's decision to hold back their pay checks until they came up with a balanced budget.

The court has also been the subject of negative TV news programs and press coverage, when it instituted the controversial and now defunct Court Case Management System in 2007, causing lines so long at the courthouse that those filing documents came with lawn chairs. On the administrative side, the court in the past had been led by clerks closely tied to the central Administrative Office of the Courts.


But the tide changed about three years later. Judge Steve White, who was presiding in Sacramento Superior at the time, challenged the administrative office over the software system, pushing to house the software on the court's own servers rather than an out-of-state data center that was controlled by the administrative office and prone to failure. He remained a steadfast and powerful critic of the administrative agency and its half-billion-dollar software project.

The following and current Presiding Judge Laurie Earl was instrumental in putting a kibosh on CCMS when, on behalf of her court, she refused to participate in a study of the troubled software and challenged the administrative office over its quality, design and performance. The plug was pulled on the massive project a few months later.

In the process, the court became a leader on the matter of court software, organizing the writing of a model contract earlier this year for courts to use in buying case management and e-filing software from the private sector. When a reporter asked the Orange County court for a copy of its recent $4.8 million software contract with Tyler Technologies, for example, the reporter was referred to the court in Sacramento.

Earl also held a high profile position in court politics and administration, chairing the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee in a time of budget crisis and administrative upheaval. Most recently, she advocated successfully against a union-backed bill that would have prevented the courts from outsourcing jobs to private contractors. Brown vetoed the measure last month.

As Earl wraps up her term next month, the new team of Hight and Culhane take on the job of running a court with less money and coming out of the long years of budget crisis with a more efficient and user-friendly court. Both come from long careers in state-level government and private practice where problems involve an intricate web of interests, egos often clash and diplomacy is key.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from Pacific University in Oregon, Hight attended McGeorge School of Law. He then took a job with the State Lands Commission where he worked for 28 years, working as the director of the California Department of Fish and Game for the last five.

He was appointed to the bench in 2003 by former Gov. Gray Davis and ran for election unopposed in 2012.

"Throughout my career, I've taken on jobs that people said you can't get there from here," he said, such as negotiating a complex water rights agreement in San Diego, a move that required reconciling the competing interests of environmentalists and farmers.

For Hight, the decision to pursue a judicial career was made at an early age.

Growing up in rural Modoc County, Hight's daily interactions the local superior court judge were formative. "My parents had a restaurant in a place called Alturas," he said. "And the courthouse was right behind the street behind the restaurant, and the superior court judge used to eat three meals a day in the restaurant."

"So I had lunch with him a thousand times and he kept telling me you want to be an attorney, then you want to be a judge. Then my cousin became a judge 30 years ago and I wanted to emulate him also."

Hight credits this cousin, as well as Governor Davis and former State Controller Ken Cory, with shaping his career goals. "They've all had a significant effect in molding me to what I am today."

For Culhane, it was the death of his law-partner of several decades, Hartley Hansen in 2004 that brought him to the bench.


"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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