SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – With more cuts expected next week in the governor’s revised budget, California’s central court bureaucracy has dismissed its personnel director and is consolidating some operations. “They’re trying to do damage control,” said San Diego Judge Daniel Goldstein.
The court bureaucracy has been under the critical eye of the state Legislature in the last few months, particularly since the implosion of a half-billion-dollar IT project. “I think they’re going to want to show the Senate that they’ve made changes,” said Goldstein, a critic of the court bureaucracy’s spending priorities.
The dismissal of HR Director Ernesto Fuentes and the merging of two HR departments was announced in an email to employees of the Administrative Office of the Courts from the agency’s interim director, Jody Patel.
The move comes ahead of a long-awaited report by the Strategic Evaluation Committee expected to be completed some time next month. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye formed the 14-member committee last March to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the central bureaucracy.
It also precedes the “May revise” due next week, May revisions to the state budget for the next fiscal year. That revised budget is expected to burn deeper into the amount allocated for California’s court system. The court budget that used to be set at roughly $3 billion per year has been cut by $650 million in the last four years.
The cuts have put great pressure on the bureaucracy at the top of the courts that employed roughly 1,000 people up until earlier this year. And many judges expect the Strategic Evaluation Committee, commonly called the SEC committee, to recommend a downsizing.
In her email to the staff of the administrative office, Patel wrote, “The Chief Justice and the Judicial Council will receive the recommendations of the Strategic Evaluation Committee (SEC) in the next six to eight weeks. However, with the significant budget reductions in this and the next fiscal year, it is incumbent on AOC executive leadership to be proactive.”
Judge Robert Dukes of Los Angeles said that Patel should have a good idea of where the SEC committee is headed.
“Judges are saying because the current acting director is also on the SEC committee, the AOC knows the direction that report is going,” he said. “I understand that report is going to be critical of the structure of the AOC. Any smart manager, knowing something like that is coming around the bend, would do everything to alleviate or reflect that criticism.”
The last year has seen some changes in the vast bureaucracy, with a host of retirements within its upper ranks and the closing of two of its three regional offices.
While the central court administration has received support from smaller courts that depend on it, surveys of judges around California have shown that a great many trial judges are fed up with the organization they see as bloated, arrogant, and dismissive of the judges’ concerns.
Those judges are still skeptical that the administrative office will in fact shrink its payroll, arguing that the bureaucracy should be forcibly trimmed down to where it does only what is required by the state statutes and the state Constitution.
“Given my knowledge of the AOC I believe that their first and foremost goal now, as always, is to preserve their organization and their power,” said retired Judge Charles Horan from Los Angeles. “I wonder if the AOC has somehow received advance notification of the anticipated findings of the SEC committee.”
“If the answer is ‘yes,’ I believe that any actions we see taken before the report is made public will be strictly defensive, and designed not to reform the agency, but to appear to be doing so,” he continued. “The truth is that the AOC needs to substantially downsize far more than they have considered doing at this point.”
Judge Goldstein in San Diego said cutbacks in the agency should have happened years ago, as the state’s fiscal crisis has forced courts throughout California to close courtrooms, shorten hours and lay off staff.
“I would worry that any cutbacks right now are too little or too late,” said the judge. “This should have been occurring five years ago before we closed the courts. What needs to happen is a complete draconian cut to all non essential services. If it doesn’t affect the courtroom, it needs to be cut.”
“I think it’s a small beginning,” added Dukes in Los Angeles. “I think many critics of the AOC feel it is bloated and unresponsive and fails to view itself as a service organization to the trial courts and that it needs to be leaner, much leaner, and that its entire culture needs to be changed. The belief is that this is going to be much of the focus of the SEC report.”