Court Reform Bill Has Hard Road in Senate

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After narrowly passing California’s Assembly, a bill intended to give more money to local trial courts and reduce the power of a big court bureaucracy is headed for a tough fight in the Senate.



     The bill is opposed by California’s chief justice and her allies control key positions in the Senate. But the author of AB 1208 predicts the same degree of difficulty in the Senate as in the Assembly.
     “Members of the Senate are not pleased with the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts and how they’re managing their money,” said Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello.
     His bill would reverse the centralization of budget and policy power achieved by the former chief justice, Ron George. Seeking to preserve that big shift of power, the current chief justice and the roughly 1,000-member administrative office under her command oppose a bill that takes away their control over the great purse represented by California’s court budget.
     On other hand, the bill is supported by a majority of trial judges, according to poll taken last year.
     “In politics, it’s who drinks the Kool Aid, who gets excited when the chief justice comes and visits you,” said Calderon, referring to the deference often given to Cantil-Sakauye.
     The lobbying campaign against the bill has put out “information that’s misleading and false,” he added. “I have to work through all that smoke and dust with each member.”
     The two most powerful legislators in the Legislature are Assembly Speaker John Perez, Democrat from Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Democrat from Sacramento.
     Before the Assembly vote on AB 1208, the press secretary for Perez suggested he was leaning in favor, simply by noting that the Speaker tends to support Democratic bills.
     In the Senate, Steinberg’s staff gave no such sign.
     “Basically the bill can be considered right up until the end of session,” said press secretary Mark Hedlund. “This one would likely to go to Judiciary. Most Assembly bills won’t be referred until we deal with our own bills.”
     Steinberg has a history of supporting the chief justice and the decisions of the gJudicial Council that operates under her leadership. As head of the Senate Rules Committee, Steinberg has the power to decide the bill’s course through the Senate and what committee should consider the bill first.
     The bill is widely expected to go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Noreen Evans, Democrat from Santa Rosa, who has expressed strong support for the chief justice in the past. By tradition, Evans also occupies a non-voting seat on the courts’ governing council.
     “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,” Evans told the Judicial Council recently.
     While those words could be interpreted to mean that Evans will kill the bill, Calderon was not so sure.
     “The chair has been very vocal about how she thinks about the bill, but even she has been more willing to listen to the judges as they come to lobby her about the bill,” Calderon said. “She wants to understand where the conflict is, because if you understand where the conflict is then there’s possibility to find some resolution.”
     Evans and a number of senators failed to answer requests for an interview.
     AB 1208 has two main components.
     One says that 100% of the money budgeted for trial courts budgeted by the Legislature should in fact go to the trial courts. That provision is largely in response to frequent draws from the trial court trust fund to pay for projects pushed by the bureaucracy.
     A second and related provision would sharply limit the power of the bureaucracy to take on big projects like the IT system, by requiring a 2/3 vote from local court representatives in order to authorize such projects, with voting strength proportionate to the size of the court.
     It is that second component that is the focus of much of the campaign against the bill.
     Last month, Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County circulated a letter opposing AB 1208 last month and obtained signatures from roughly 2/3 of the state’s presiding judges, those judges who have administrative power over their courts for a two-year stint.
      “How is that democratic?” Rosenberg argued from Yolo County. “You’re going to have the tail wagging the dog. Ceding control to the courts in 2 or 3 counties with the largest populations is anathema to local control.”
     Smaller counties have come to rely on the central administrators for their funds and support services, such as legal defense when a court’s procedures are challenged. But there is no simple rule explaining the positions taken among the 58 county courts in California.
     Presiding judges from two big courts, San Diego and Riverside, signed Rosenberg’s letter opposing AB 1208 while two even bigger courts, Orange and Los Angeles, did not.
     A large number of presiding judges from smaller court signed the petition, but the presiding judge in Kern County did not, and judges from Kern have been strong critics of spending decisions and political maneuvering by the central bureaucrats.
     The criticism is fueled in part by Auditor Elaine Howle’s report last year where she found the Administrative Office of the Courts concluded that costs for the often-maligned IT project were out of control. She also found that the administrators had inaccurately estimated those costs to legislators.
     “The AOC representing the Judicial Council has already been caught fudging on the truth by the auditor general and that’s putting it nicely,” said Calderon. “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
     Opponents of the bill point to the reform committees established by the Judicial Council and the chief justice. But the head of the committee set up to reform the bureaucracy quit last month to represent legislative leaders in a challenge to the state Controller who cut the legislators’ pay last year when they did not balance the state budget.
     “Every time an issue comes up they form a committee,” said Calderon. “Committees are worth their weight in committees. It is results that count. No reforms have been implemented. There’s been no restructuring, no one’s been fired. I don’t see any deeds worth noting.”
     Calderon said he met with the chief justice, who along with AOC lobbyists has visited lawmakers and traditional news media to campaign against the bill.
     “She should have stayed above it all,” Calderon said, adding that he urged the chief to make drastic changes to differentiate herself from her predecessor Ronald George. “I told her she should have done something demonstrably different to show she’s not part of the same system. But all she wanted me to do was drop the bill. She’d say, ‘drop the bill and then we’ll talk.'”
     The jockeying over the bill is tied to both substance and pride, he added.
     “I think the Pro Tem is trying to do a favor to some degree for the Chief Justice so that it’s not going to look like such a big defeat for her. But he’s going to deal with it on the merits,” Calderon said, adding, “I kind of like it in the rules committee because it gives the Pro Tem more control over where it’s going to go. If there’s one consistency about the Pro Tem it’s that he’s fair-minded and even handed.”
     A joke made by Calderon before the Assembly vote on AB 1208 was seen by some insiders as a gaffe that would cost him dearly. “If it were up to me, I’d eliminate the Senate altogether,” he’d said in a quip to a legislative opponent of the bill.
     “Not that I took any notice of that,” Senate leader Steinberg told reporters two days later.
     Calderon said his joke and Steinberg’s response were normal political banter. “To be sure the Pro Tem is giving me a jab back because I made the quip about the Senate,” Calderon said. “It’s a healthy two-house rivalry that’s existed since I’ve been in the Assembly. We’re always making fun of each other.”

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