SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At a meeting with California’s chief justice Monday, all judges and justices present agreed that the administrative bureaucracy over the courts needs to function as a helper to court operations and not as “a control agency.” On other hot-button issues, the judges briefly discussed a move by presiding judges to elect their own committee chair but the issue was not resolved.
“I thought it was a productive meeting,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said.
“I appreciate that a group of presiding judges invited me, other Judicial Council members, and other judges to come to a meeting to listen to their concerns,” she added in a written statement. “I also appreciate that Judge David Rubin, president of the California Judges Association, and members of the Alliance of California Judges were able to join us.”
“One of my primary goals during the first 16 months of my tenure was to meet as many persons and groups inside and outside the judicial branch and to hear their views,” the chief justice said. “This meeting is part of that effort.”
Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento Superior Court, one of the judges who called for the meeting, said, “I thought everybody has an opportunity to share their thoughts, some of which were not I think easy messages to deliver.”
“The chief justice was incredibly gracious and gave us her full attention,” Earl added. “It was the first step toward reconciliation among the branch, which I think we need.”
The 15 judges who attended represented courts up and down the state, from Los Angeles Superior, the largest court in the nation, to Fresno and Kern county courts in the Central San Joaquin Valley, to courts in the Bay Area and Northern California.
The meeting was called by presiding judges, who invited Judge David Rubin, President of the California Judges Association, and Judges David Lampe and Judge Steve White of the Alliance of California Judges. Justice Anthony Kline moderated the discussion.
One topic of which there was unanimity was that the central bureaucracy of the courts should support the courts, rather than dictate policy to them. The San Francisco-based Administrative Office of the Courts, a vast bureaucracy employing hundreds, works directly under the judiciary’s governing body, the Judicial Council, which is headed by the chief justice.
In recent years, many trial judges have attacked the growing power of that bureaucracy, claiming it spends money with abandon while providing little service to the trial courts and the public. It has also been widely criticized for spending a half-billion on a court IT project that was recently killed by the council.
“There was a universal sentiment for change,” Judge Lampe with the Alliance said. He added that the chief justice seemed to be in agreement that the AOC needed reform.
“We probably touched on 20 different subjects,” Yolo County Superior Court Presiding Judge David Rosenberg said, “and it was pretty open and free-formed. The general topics dealt with the budget, governance, about the relationship of the Administrative Office of the Courts to the Judicial Council and to trial courts.”
He said the judges spent little time talking about a recent vote held by presiding judges to choose their own chair for their advisory committee, a decision initially rejected by the chief. “We were in the meeting for about two hours and 20 minutes. We spent maybe two minutes on that subject.”
“There was unanimity on the role of the AOC,” Rosenberg continued, “I raised the issue that the AOC should be viewed as a service agency, not a control agency. I think that is evolving under the new leadership of the Judicial Council. The council has certainly asserted its role vis-a-vis the AOC.”
“Under a prior administration, the AOC had performed more of a control agency function, but my sense is that under the new chief justice the view is that is should be a service agency and support the courts,” Rosenberg added. “I sensed no disagreement with that viewpoint in the meeting.”
Reflecting the view of many participants, Rosenberg commented that the meeting “frankly exceeded my expectations.”
The alliance also issued a statement saying, “The meeting of judges today was open and courteous. A significant number of presiding judges, and Judges Lampe and White, from the alliance, spoke of the need for democracy, representation, and substantive participation of elected judges in Judicial Council structure.”
“It was made clear that the AOC mission is as a service agency (not a control agency),” said the statement. “On this point, we were pleased that the chief justice agreed. Finally, a balance between central policies and local control, and trial court budgeting were also discussed, the alliance taking the position that trial judges must have a voice on behalf of the trial courts.”
No mention was made of controversial financial reform legislation backed by the alliance, according to judges at the meeting. The Alliance statement noted that it would continue advocating passage of AB 1208, a bill intended to ensure that more money appropriated by the Legislature goes directly to the courts.
Rosenberg said he was not sure what the next step would be, but that “the ball is in the presiding judges court” to make the next move. “We didn’t go into this meeting with the intention that any commitments or solutions being made. There were eight presiding judges among the 15. The eight of us are going to chat soon and decide what will be the appropriate next steps.”