Council Votes to Press Reforms

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Rejecting charges of foot-dragging, California’s Judicial Council voted Friday to “own” or push ahead with reforming an administrative office that has brought a tide of protest from the state’s trial judges.
     “I know that some have indicated that the purpose of assigning it to Executive and Planning and the purpose for our review was merely to delay the process, to maybe eventually shelve the process and the report, and to bury it someplace, said Justice Douglas Miller who chairs the Executive and Planning Committee. “But I can personally tell you that cannot be further from the truth.”
     Miller was referring to the massive report released in the spring by the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of 11 judges selected by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to review the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     After a year of investigation, the SEC report recommended over 100 individual reforms to the AOC. The agency had brought unusual, widespread and highly vocal protest from trial judges who were angered by the office’s high-handed treatment of the trial courts, its efforts to take over and control court policy and the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars on ambitious and impractical projects.
     Earlier this week, Miller’s E&P committee had endorsed the great bulk of the reforms and set up time tables for their achievement. Miller asked the council to adopt his committee’s recommendation to set up a structure to implement them.
     “We can come before you and recommend that you approve these recommendations, you can approve them and direct that they be implemented. And in some sense that is all well and good. But it is equally important to have a system and a process for accountability,” Miller said.
     “So we are proposing the following: For those that have been indicated they have been completed, we are going to ask the AOC to report to us in writing when they were completed, how they were completed and provide supporting documentation.”
     The council then voted unanimously to approve the recommendations from the E&P committee to forge ahead with reform. Cantil-Sakauye called it a momentous decision, “a moment for the books.”
     “Now the recommendations are ours,” Miller said. “They now are the Judicial Council’s. And we own them and together, all of us, as a Judicial Council, must assume the important responsibility to implement and monitor the recommendations which I hope you approve today. But even with your approval, unfortunately our work won’t magically end today. We have to continually strive to improve.”
      The chief justice had vowed to pursue an inquiry into the workings of the administrative office when she took office in 2010.
     “My goal from the outset was to establish a fresh approach to governance, one that’s based on transparency, accountability and oversight and self assessment and communication,” Cantil-Sakauye told the council. “I needed an objective body to study the agency, a body that understood what we do and how we do it. We’re taking this report seriously. It’s important.”
     Miller’s committee recommended annual, rather than periodic reviews of the new director for the Administrative Office of the Courts. The council also agreed that the court construction office should be split into two departments, one to handle courthouse maintenance and the other to focus solely on construction.
     Assistant Presiding Judge Charles Wachob of Placer County, who headed the committee that produced the seminal report on reform, said he knew months ago that the construction office was in serious trouble.
     “At the time that the SEC prepared its report, we examined the Office of Court Construction and Management,” he said. “We knew from our site visits and from our interviews and from our examination of their operations and structure that changes were needed.”
     During the same period, the council had commissioned an independent study of the construction program that, like a series of other reports and recommendations over the last year, blasted management practices at the administrative office. The report by consultant Pegasus Global Holdings was released last Friday.
     “We knew at the time that the Pegasus report was out there and it was forthcoming,” said Wachob. “We didn’t have the advantage of that. We think that the recommendations made in that report were actually somewhat predictable that some of those functions needed to be reorganized.”
     Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, who co-chaired the SEC with Wachob, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by how the committee’s report was received by the E&P committee, and that the council was right to take its time in evaluating the proposed reforms.
     “We encountered none of the rumored resistance,” said McCabe. “Unless you were in a coma or on Mars, you have had an opportunity to comment. I’m comforted in knowing that we went extra steps to make sure everybody’s voice was heard. I think you should be proud that you resisted pressures, external pressures to rush it.”
     Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside, a member of the SEC, said, “I want to assure anyone listening around this table or on the airwaves that there’s nothing that’s been hidden. If you think you can place myself and Judge McCabe and Judge Wachob on the E&P and we’ll sit in the corner without giving our opinions, you don’t know us very well.”
     McCabe added that the year-long timetable recommended by Miller’s committee to start consolidating AOC departments, restructuring management and cutting costs was “overly optimistic.”
     “You cannot change the course of a battleship on a dime,” he said. “So patience to those folks who believe that that is a stalling tactic or an attempt to delay, it is not. These things take time.”
     At a public comment period before the council vote, Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court Carol Corrigan urged the council to “stop looking backwards” at the shortcomings and failures of the AOC.
     “The report rightfully faults some past decision-making as lacking in deliberation and cooperation,” said Corrigan. “Fair enough. But let’s not repeat those shortcomings.”

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