SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye strongly defended the Administrative Office of the Courts this week in the wake of a blistering report that criticized the agency as bloated, overpaid and inefficient.
“Telling me something is wrong, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong,” she said. “As chief, everyone tells me everything. I have heard that AOC employees have complained that some of the descriptions of what they do are not completely accurate. Do you mean they don’t have a right to voice their opinion?”
A number of trial judges, who has been cutting in their criticism of the administrative office, said the chief justice would naturally be inclined to support her staff in the face of a withering barrage of criticism.
“I want to give the chief some space on this one,” said Judge Andrew Banks in Orange County. “I want to give the chief some room and assume what she was trying to do was speak to the AOC employees who were not part of the problem and give them some recognition.”
In a similar vein, Judge Stephen Czuleger of Los Angeles Superior Court said, “It’s important to note that the chief should be congratulated for taking the initial step in requesting this report. I can understand why she would want to buck up the AOC employees.”
In the report released last Friday, a committee of judges appointed by the chief justice last year delivered a series of body blows to the administrative office, finding that the agency is too big, spends too much money and exercises unchecked power over the state’s trial courts.
Earlier this week, Cantil-Sakauye sent a video message to the staff of the administrative office in which she appeared to criticize the accuracy of the report. “Despite the care taken by the committee, there is a good chance you will find erroneous information or misconceptions in the report,” said Cantil-Sakauye in the video.
That statement in turn prompted criticism from trial judges who saw it as attack on a messenger delivering tough but long-overdue criticism of the agency.
But Cantil-Sakauye said the employees felt demoralized by the report. She said she thought it was important to boost the staff’s morale.
“I sent the video out because I was concerned about the morale of the AOC employees that I know to be very hard working, dedicated public servants,” she said in an interview. “If I were an employee, I would feel demoralized. I work next door to those folks, so I of course did the video to explain to them that not all is lost in the world and let’s proceed.”
The voluminous report, compiled by an 11-member committee appointed by the chief, recommends sweeping change to the AOC. Its findings substantiated what many trial judges had been claiming for years, that the AOC had grown too powerful, made poor decisions, such as its embarking on a costly IT project that wasted a half-billion dollars, and consistently hid its budget, making it nearly impossible for judges, lawmakers and the public to figure out how it is funded or how it spends money.
The committee members spent a year conducting interviews and surveying hundreds of judges, justices, court officials and even AOC workers themselves.
“I read the report cover to cover, and I thought it was an impressive document,” said Judge Steve White of Sacramento Superior Court. “It rendered a great service to the judicial branch, but that service will only be realized if we implement its recommendations.”
“It’s one heck of a good start,” said Banks in Orange County Superior Court. “I’m hoping like hell that the Judicial Council jumps in and says we’re moving forward with these valid criticisms.”
Among its over 100 recommendations, the committee proposed a drastic downsizing in the number of AOC workers and overpaid executives, a new focus on serving the trial courts rather than controlling them and more transparency in its budgeting process. The committee also noted that it encountered reluctance from the AOC in providing them with information for the report, some of which it said was incomplete or nonresponsive.
White said the committee, named the Strategic Evaluation Committee or SEC, would have no reason to report anything untrue about the AOC’s lack of transparency and responsiveness.
“They had no ax to grind. All the presiding judges met with them, as did scores of other people,” said White. “They definitely did not have an agenda.”
In her video to the troops, Cantil-Sakauye indicated that some of the committee’s recommendations would need more investigation. She urged administrative office employees to point out any “incorrect” information to Jody Patel, the agency’s current director.
“The SEC’s final report is very different from a standard audit review,” said the chief justice in the video. “In audits, those being audited respond to the audit before it is finalized. The AOC did not have that opportunity. As you read the report and find information that is substantially incorrect in your view, please let Jody know. It’s important that any decisions the council makes be based on correct information.”
Faced with criticism in the past from the state auditor over an ambitious IT project, the administrative office reacted by saying it had already implemented many of the reforms suggested by the auditor. In the video, the chief justice made a similar point, saying that many changes had been made to the agency since the committee began its investigation last year.
“The report is a snapshot in time about an AOC that in some ways has substantially changed since the SEC began its work,” she said in the video.
On a side note, Cantil-Sakauye had received some criticism for the timing of the release of the committee’s 221-page critique. It was posted on the administrative office’s website and sent to trial judges after working hours on Friday before the three-day Memorial Day weekend.
“I knew that if I had sat on it over the weekend and released it on the next working day, I would have been criticized that I kept it,” she said.
Cantil-Sakauye said she could not comment on what parts of the report she thought were strongest, and would wait to give her opinion of the report until it is accepted by the Judicial Council at its meeting next month. She did add, “I thought all the recommendations were important. I’ve heard that the report is very comprehensive, and I am grateful for everyone on the SEC for what is reflective of a lot of time and effort.”
Committee chair Assistant Presiding Judge Charles Wachob of Placer County said in an interview this week that he had not seen the chief’s video, but said he had seen some change, particularly with a slew of retirements within the AOC’s upper ranks.
“Several division directors left and some divisions were consolidated, so yes, I guess there has been some change,” he said.
White in Sacramento said any change the AOC has made has been negligible compared with the sacrifices made by financially struggling trial courts all over the state.
“They are a day late and a dollar short on everything,” said White. “There is much more that needs to be done. The courts have already made dramatic cuts in the last three years. The AOC did not make dramatic cuts in that time. They are starting to make modest cuts, but even with the proposed cuts that the committee proposes, that would reduce them to the point where a lot of courts have already been reduced.”
“The problems that the SEC is addressing are problems largely of the AOC and Judicial Council’s creation. They must be addressed,” White added. “The best single document, which sets forth a blueprint for addressing those, is the SEC report. I would hope that people will take some guidance from the SEC report and not be defensive about it.”
Cantil-Sakauye placed chairman Judge Wachob and vice-chair Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County in advisory seats on the Judicial Council, an appointment Wachob said he believed will start in September.
“I believe that certainly all the people on the SEC have acquired substantial knowledge about the workings of the AOC, and input from any one of us would be helpful,” Wachob said. “I think there are a number of substantial recommendations about the need to reorganize the structure of the AOC, to make it less top-heavy, more nimble and more responsive.”
He also pointed to a core criticism of the office which said the administrators had lost sight of their main job which is to serve the trial courts rather than to exert control over them.
“There are also a number of recommendations that go toward refocusing the AOC on being a service provider to the trial courts and appellate courts,” said Wachob.
In going forward on those recommendations, the chief justice concluded that she and the members of the Judicial Council are partners.
“We are partners in this in deciding where and how to proceed,” she said. “We’ve been transparent all along. This is a committee I appointed early on.”