SAN FRANCISCO (CN) Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye appointed four new members to the governing council for California’s 58 trial courts Wednesday, spreading the appointments between Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento. “I’m still looking at ways to broaden the membership or change the appointment process,” said the chief justice.
All four have held positions on committees within the Judicial Council, the body that decides some policy issues and advises the chief justice. She said their past work demonstrates experience with the issues facing the judiciary and “the ability to work with others.”
The chief justice, appointed late last year, has pledged to chart her own path and says she wishes she had additional slots to fill on the governing council. “I wish I had more,” said the chief justice in an interview.
Justice Judith Meisels Ashmann-Gerst from the Second Appellate District, based in Los Angeles, will succeed Justice Richard Huffman, a controversial figure tied to the previous chief justice. Ashmann-Gerst has been on the Court Technology Advisory Committee since 2008.
Judge Teri Jackson of San Francisco was also appointed to the council, having been a member of the council’s internal Rules and Projects Committee, which standardizes rules for the trial courts. She also sits on Cantil-Sakauye’s recently formed oversight committee for a statewide computer project, which according to the chief justice, is supposed to ensure that the project meets its deadlines and budget.
Santa Clara’s head clerk, David Yamasaki, will be joining Jackson on the council. He has held a position on the council’s Court Executives Advisory Committee since 2008. He moved to Santa Clara from San Diego where the court has endorsed a highly controversial and expensive IT project to keep track of cases.
Judge David De Alba of Sacramento will also fill a non-voting, advisory position on the council. Other judges on his court have been outspoken in their criticism of the AOC’s management of the IT project that is estimated to cost almost $2 billion while also requiring substantially more labor from short-staffed trial courts.
Filling the one council seat open for an appellate justice, Ashmann-Gerst’s appointment followed a brief controversy earlier this year when an attorney for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the body that serves directly under the Judicial Council, sent an email to judges throughout the state, campaigning for another contender, Justice Laurie Zelon.
While the lawyer who sent the email was reprimanded by her superiors and saw her actions criticized by the chief justice, many trial court judges said the email showed a conflict of interest since the AOC is supposed to serve under the council.
The chief justice said all three candidates for the appellate justice opening on the council were “really strong candidates” and “any one of them would have made a tremendous contribution to the council.”
Cantil-Sakauye said she has worked with Ashmann Gerst in the past and considers her “the best choice of the three.” The chief justice added, “She is fulfilling the seat left by Huffman but that does not mean she will ascend to whatever responsibilities he had on the council.”
“I know all of these are independent thinkers by personal experience and reputation and it helps that they’ve all served on advisory committees before in some capacity,” Cantil-Sakauye said.
In selecting the new members, the chief justice said she looked for “people who are ethical and have demonstrated that they are solution oriented to statewide problems.”
Among those problems are growing dissatisfaction with the council’s governance of the judicial branch, and of the computer project known as the Court Case Management System, the cost of which is estimated to be at least $1.9 billion. In a survey circulated by the California Judges Association, 79 percent of the 877 responding judges said they were dissatisfied with the council’s oversight of CCMS.
Fifty-three percent of judges who responded to the survey said they were dissatisfied with the council’s governance of the judicial branch. “The Judicial Council is perceived as an exclusive group unwilling to address the needs and concerns of California judges,” CJA president and San Bernardino Judge Keith Davis wrote to the chief justice. “Debate and discussion of contrary or competing ideas is highly discouraged, and those not in lock-step are publicly berated.”
In a summary of comments accompanying the survey, the CJA quoted from individual judges who said council is too one-sided in its decisions and too insular in membership. The Judicial Council should be “more democratic and less elitist in its selection of members,” said one of the judges.
“The exclusive selection process for election to the Judicial Council is believed to be designed so as to yield members who will simply accept, without question, the decisions of the Chief Justice and the leaders of the AOC,” wrote another judge answering the survey. “Expression of diverse viewpoints should be welcomed, but are not. Instead, opposing views are treated with either hostility or indifference.”
In answer to a question referring to those comments, the chief said she believes all of her appointments reflect diversity of opinions and ideas, but it is up to individual council members to seek input from their fellow judges.
“In part what I expect from council members is to go out into their legal and judicial communities and find out what’s happening and bring that back to council,” she said.