(CN) – California’s chief justice is expected to meet with trial court presiding judges today to discuss a range of issues that include a move by the presiding judges to elect their own committee chair to represent their views within the judicial hierarchy. The committee head is currently chosen by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
Presiding judges from around California declined to discuss the specific issue of electing their own chair but pressed the overall point that the meeting is intended to be conciliatory, a first step toward overcoming deep divisions that have emerged in recent years between the central administration of the courts and California’s trial judges.
“This is first step in having a more open and civil discussion in an informal setting,” said Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento Superior Court, one of the judges who called for the meeting. Earl said the presiding judges extended an invitation to a few representatives from the California Judges Association and the reform group, the Alliance of California Judges.
The tone of debate appears to have changed following a vote by the judges on the Judicial Council last month to put an end to an enormously expensive and unpopular technology program. The IT project was left over from the time when the former chief justice, Ron George, was building up the central power of the chief justice’s office and the Administrative Office of the Courts.
That structure has now come under severe pressure from budget cuts of $650 million to the overall judicial budget of $3.7 billion, leading to conflict between the cash-strapped trial courts and the AOC, a bureaucracy that continues in the view of many trial judges to be “fat” and “robust” while it fails “to provide any meaningful service.”
One of the front burner court issues in California is a legislative initiative backed by the trial judges in the Alliance. The legislation is intended to send a greater percentage of the court budget to the trial courts and reduce the ability of the administrators to siphon off funds for pet projects.
The Judicial Council, which is led by the chief justice and sets overall policy, has voted to lobby against the bill. While AB 1208 is expected to be up for discussion on Monday, Judge Earl said the bill will not be the focus of the meeting. “It will be about topics the presiding judges want to talk about.”
In an interview on Friday, Judge Robert Dukes of Los Angeles Superior Court reinforced the theme that the meeting should be a conciliatory discussion rather than a combative exchange.
“I would hope everybody puts their filters down so they can have an understanding and a dialogue as to the extreme distress that the trial courts are in, and an acknowledgement of the many voices who have criticized the workings of the AOC and the organization of the Judicial Council,” said Dukes, who is an Alliance member but will not be attending Monday’s meeting.
“I would hope that both of those topics could be discussed in a meaningful manner that does not come down to being confrontational and where everybody puts their filters back up,” he added. “The underpinnings of that have to be how do we save our failing trial courts. I’d like her to acknowledge that the problems the courts are facing have been created by her own staff.”
Taking direct aim at the administrative office, he said, “The AOC remains fat, robust, and I defy anyone to tell me what meaningful service they provide to the public. Until the chief and the Judicial Council start to acknowledge those problems, they’re going to get no resolution to the signature failure of our trial courts.”
Spurred by court closures, dwindling resources and mass layoffs of court employees, many of the state’s trial judges are pushing for greater democracy within the judicial leadership and for a reduction of the bureaucracy’s power and influence.
“The horses are out of the corral,” said Judge Daniel Goldstein of San Diego Superior Court. “People want to participate. Judges, court reporters, and clerks want to participate in the makeup of the branch and they want democratic reforms, and if those reforms don’t come from within the branch, it will come from outside the branch.”
“We believe,” said Judge Maryanne Gilliard of Sacramento, “that it is unhealthy in a democracy to place all power in the hands of a single group of appointed members without any checks or balance.”
“There are always tipping points,” added Dukes, “and that is what is happening to courts around the state. You can’t deny the majority of courts are suffering and it has caused them to look into what has caused the difficulties they have. Many have come to the conclusion that it’s a broken government system, part of which is the bureaucracy through the AOC which is non-responsive and beholden to nobody.”
Among the specific proposals expected to be discussed Monday, the Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee moved to choose its own chair, rather than follow the old procedure of sending three names to the chief justice for her to choose from. The committee is part of the Judicial Council’s process and its chair sits as a non voting member on the council.
For example, Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, who now heads the presiding judges committee, moved earlier this month to “not spend a penny more” on the IT project that appears to be headed for the junk yard. But he could not vote for his own motion, which was defeated in favor of a motion to spend another $8.6 million to wind down the project and see if it had any salvage value.
Cantil-Sakauye has rejected the committee’s proposal to elect their own chair, according to an email newsletter from Rosenberg. “The Chief feels that submitting three names gives her the option to pick the chair with the right credentials for the times,” said his newsletter
But the presiding judges interviewed last week believed the issue remains under discussion.
The move from the presiding judges goes hand in hand with a campaign to bring greater democracy to the Judicial Council itself, whose members are picked by the chief justice. Many of the state’s 2,000 trial judges, spread through 58 counties up and own the state, believe their voices have been ignored by the council, as well as the administrative bureaucracy that functions alongside it.
“After a decade of having to speak through the chosen voice of the chief justice,” said Dukes in reference to the presiding judges, “they are feeling they aren’t having meaningful input, and they’d like to have that as much as judges want to have meaningful input on the Judicial Council.”