SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye slammed the state Assembly in a recent speech to about 100 judges and court clerks, saying the legislators had made “false claims” about the court’s big and powerful bureaucracy.
The chief justice said she met with the Assembly Speaker John Perez before the Assembly voted last week to pass a bill that would reduce the power of the Administrative Office of the Courts, an agency criticized by trial judges as arrogant and spendthrift.
“I had frank discussions about what was happening in the judicial branch in 2011,” said the chief justice, “and so was quite surprised to hear on the floor of the Assembly all of the meritless, false claims that were made about the judicial branch and the AOC.”
“It’s one thing to lose an argument based on merit,” she added. “It’s another thing when the facts are not represented.”
Perez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, called her after the vote.
“I said to him, ‘I am greatly dismayed by the false information that was stated on your floor.’ And he was greatly concerned that there was false information stated on his floor about the judiciary.”
In the rough politics over the bill, its legislative author promptly returned the slam.
“There’s a lot of concern on the part of the Senate as there was in the Assembly,” said Majority Leader Charles Calderon, interviewed on the same day the chief justice criticized the Assembly.
“But it’s politics, it’s who drinks the Kool Aid, who gets excited when the chief justice comes and visits with you and also gives information that’s misleading and false and confuses the issue,” said Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello. “You’ve got to work through all that, each member has to work through all the information and misinformation out there surrounding the issue.”
The chief justice spoke last week in the auditorium of the State of California Building that serves as headquarters for the central court bureaucracy and is located in downtown San Francisco. The audience of roughly 100 was made up of presiding judges, assistant presiding judges, head clerks and their lieutenants.
Her speech was videotaped and then a link to the online video was circulated as part of an email newsletter to all the judges in California this week. It is part of a campaign by the bureaucrats to, in their eyes, set the record straight, and, in the eyes of their critics, to continue a pattern of propaganda.
AB 1208 would require that 100% of the money allocated by the Legislature for operation of the trial courts in fact go to the trial courts. That money totals roughly $1.8 billion a year.
The bill would also require that 2/3 of the trial courts approved any major projects started by the central bureaucracy, with voting power apportioned based on population. The provision is driven in large part by an extremely high-priced IT system that is considered a fiasco by many trial judges.
“AB 1208 helps restore funds that the Legislature designates for the trial courts,” said San Diego Judge Daniel Goldstein. “It’s a systemic approach to having fiscal sanity so trial courts aren’t running out of money.”
Goldstein is a director of the Alliance of California Judges, a group that supports the bill. His points reflected a frequent argument by trial judges who say the bloated bureaucracy dominates proceedings of the policy-making body for the courts, the Judicial Council.
“The Judicial Council lacks oversight of the AOC,” Goldstein said. “AB 1208 actually helps the chief. It translates into fiscal reform of the branch in that it gives the chief justice the tools to make sure the trial courts have enough money to operate.”
Goldstein found it “ironic” that the bill’s opponents impugned lawmakers for voting for the bill. “To attack the legislators who voted for AB 1208 in good conscience who were expressing democracy when the judiciary is not democratic is ironic,” he said.
In her address to the judges and clerks, the chief justice said that after her discussion with Perez, she thought AB 1208 would not have the 41 votes it needed to pass the Assembly.
“I thought that for the most part then that it would go away, because I understood that this bill would be up to each member to vote their conscience,” she said. “That it wouldn’t be the subject of political maneuvering in terms of voting your conscience on the Assembly floor.”
“But I was told that during the period that it was on call at 33-23, that the Speaker asked people to vote for that bill,” said the chief justice. “And that’s how at a minimum of 41, it left the Assembly.”
Presiding Judge David Rosenberg in Yolo County who chairs the presiding judges committee said the bill’s passage was the result of “magic” worked by Speaker Perez and Calderon.
“There’s no question in my mind that the day of the vote, there were not 41 votes for that bill. In our own conversations with members of the Assembly, it was clear that the 41 votes were not there,” he said.
Goldstein in San Diego answered that both sides lobbied strenuously for the bill, and that it enjoyed the support of wide array of lawmakers and political groups.
“The bill had widespread bipartisan support,” he said. “It had Republicans and it had Democrats. It had the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation and it had the SEIU.”
Los Angeles is one of the courts where judges have voted to support the legislation.
Judge Steve Czuleger in Los Angeles lobbied for his court in the hours leading up to passage in the Assembly.
“The passage of this bill is an opportunity for serious minds to address a serious problem,” said Czuleger. “Anyone who listened to the Members of the Assembly, who spoke for and against the bill, knows that every member who spoke raised substantial concerns with the current administration of the Judicial Branch.”
“I hope that serious minds do take this opportunity to reflect on those concerns and address them rather than attack the messengers and the Legislature,” said the Los Angeles judge. “Only time will tell what will happen in the Senate. But regardless, the issue will remain unless tackled decisively.”
But for Cantil-Sakauye, any blunders the AOC may have made were in the past, and any events preceding her tenure as chief should be set aside.
“There are matters we can talk about but I’m most concerned about the reality, the present and the future. We can talk about the past, learn lessons from the past, but we can’t be flat-footed about the past,” she told the judges last week. “It seems to me that notwithstanding any issues that people may have with what happened in the past, all the falsehoods and all the claims that were made on the floor of the Assembly were about the past.”
But Judge David Lampe in Kern County, also an Alliance director, said the bill passed because legislators understood that an administrative and fiscal restructuring, put in place 15 years ago, created a systemic funding problem for the trial courts.
“The bill absolutely passed on its merits. In my conversations with legislators, everyone understands the structural problem built into the statute,” said Lampe. “You can’t fix this without there being a statutory reform. There’s an inherent structural problem going forward with funding of the trial courts that’s been most likely exposed by the budget difficulties.”
Complaints about past overspending illustrate the systemic problem that the bill is intended to fix, Lampe added. “It’s really a going forward bill. What happened in the past is just an example of the problem,” he said
“The problem is going to continue until the statute is fixed,” he added. “To the extent that we’re concerned about money that’s already been spent, that money is gone.”
In her San Francisco address, the chief justice conceded that the fight was personal.
“We’re judges, we’re neutral, we’re fact finders,” she said. “We left that persona behind long time ago. But it is kind of funny how it comes back to you, pretty quickly actually, about when you’re fighting for a value or a principle that threatens what you stand for.”
Rosenberg echoed that strength of conviction.
“Her focus right now is on restoring funding to the branch and allowing the branch to continue to provide uniform justice,” he said. “Judges are not a political branch and so it’s difficult for judges to get involved in these sorts of political issues.”
At the same time, he said, “There’s a bill that affects the branch, you can’t just sit silently and allow it to occur.”
The bill has now moved to the Senate, where it awaits transfer from the Rules Committee to a policy committee. It is likely to end up in the Senate Judiciary Committee whose chair, Noreen Evans, has ominously said, “Once it gets out of the Assembly, it comes into the Senate and lands in my committee and I don’t support the goals of this bill.”
Towards the end of her address, Cantil-Sakauye said, “I realize there’s been press about what the Senate is doing and what the Senate said, and I will tell you I’ve had not one single conversation with anyone in the Senate.”
“So again of course, because I went to school with Senator Steinberg that has been the reason to not move the bill at the time out of Rules,” she said with saracasm in her voice. “I think the Senate understands that the branch needs to focus on budget. I think that most of the leadership in the Legislature knows we need to focus on budget.”