Deal on Emergency Funds for|San Francisco Court Hotly Debated

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Recrimination and rancor abounded at a meeting of California’s Judicial Council where members eventually voted unanimously to give a $2.5 million bailout from the branch’s emergency fund to the financially strapped San Francisco Superior Court.
     The fracas began when Court Executive Officer Michael Yuen said San Francisco would reject the money that was contingent on several provisions attached at the last minute. Calling the agreement brokered by the judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts a “charade,” Yuen said, “I will not allow my court to succumb to unnecessary micromanagement of our financial affairs.”
      In reproaching incoming interim AOC director Ron Overholt for negotiating on behalf of the council in what he characterized as bad faith, Yuen claimed documents presented at Friday’s meeting had been altered from the original agreement he signed with Overholt to give the floundering court emergency money with no strings.
     “It was our understanding that the Judicial Council had given Mr. Overholt the authority to negotiate on your behalf,” he said. “In light of this delegated duty, it is outrageous that this agreement was not presented to you as executed by both parties.”
     “Instead, frankly what we have here is a charade,” he continued. “It is an embarrassment not only for the council but for the incoming interim director of the AOC. It’s a doctored version that was never presented to Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein or to me.”
     The new document presented seven conditions the court would have to meet to receive the $2.5 million and makes no mention of a promise from the AOC to push for increased funding from the Legislature and give the court an additional $650,000 grant to keep two civil litigation courtrooms open.
     Among other things, the conditions require the court to refrain from closing any courtrooms, compile a detailed report on how the money will be spent, submit to an audit by the AOC on how it spent the money and submit several additional reports on how the court plans to implement cost-saving measures. The court would also be required to repay the money from any remaining funds it has at the end of each fiscal year through 2015.
     “We find the conditions totally unacceptable and frankly, insulting,” Yuen said.
     He also took issue with a provision of the document that says the council could choose to give San Francisco less than the initially agreed upon $2.5 million. “Let me make clear that I cannot and I will not subject my employees anymore to a yo-yo effect caused by prolonged uncertainties as to whether the AOC and Judicial Council will have the will and demonstrate the commitment to help trial courts like us keep our doors open,” Yuen said.
     But Yuen was even angrier that the option up for a vote did not even include a statement of the AOC’s commitment to seek legislative help for the branch, as the original agreement had. “The agreement pledged the council to work to advocate for legislation that would allow any trial court to generate and retain certain new revenues,” Yuen said.
     “The thought of trial courts achieving financial independence from the AOC is apparently a scenario too radical to consider, let alone support by actively seeking the passage of such legislation,” he added. “The time has come and the momentum is building within the branch for such critically needed outside-the-box thinking. With or without the support of the Judicial Council and the AOC.”
     Yuen continued: “In fact, I hope you recognize that the breach of trust on display here today actually fuels the seeds of dissent and the urgent requests for reforms within the branch. It appears that the council and the AOC value unfettered autonomy and control over the actual delivery of broad access to justice for its state’s citizenry. I will not allow my court to succumb to unnecessary micromanagement of our financial affairs. The seven conditions outlined in the report before you simply amount to unwelcome, insulting infringement on the local authority of the San Francisco Superior Court.”
     The council ultimately decided to give San Francisco the $2.5 million based on the court’s original agreement, but with the added condition of repayment within five years and a report to the council by Aug. 1, 2012, on how the money was used. Yuen’s passionate remarks nonetheless elicited a very unfavorable response from several judges and justices.
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye seemed to take particular offense to Yuen’s insinuation that seeds of dissent would be sown by the council’s adoption of the amended agreement. Her response referred to a belief held by many judges within the branch that AOC staff should control judicial branch policy.
     “The AOC, unlike the fiction out there, does not run council,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “AOC does not define council. AOC doesn’t make the decision and then council ratifies.”
      “And this money belongs to all the 58 trial courts,” she added. “A $2.5 million allocation should take a hell of a lot more than a rubber stamp.”
     Council members argued that the emergency fund money could become highly sought after by the state’s other 57 trial courts if San Francisco were to receive help.
     “There’s only $9.8 million in the urgent needs reserve, and I expect that that amount will be about the same next year and then the year after,” Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County said. “So we’re not talking about a lot of money.”
     While $9.8 million is the amount that was allocated to the fund this year, the council has allocated almost $130 million to the emergency fund since fiscal year 2000-01 and has given out, at maximum, $6.3 million to trial courts in the last decade. In fiscal year 2009-10, Plumas County Superior Court received $40,000 from the fund to open its new courthouse.
     Appellate Justice Douglas Miller took a conciliatory approach in responding to Yuen. “Quite frankly, I don’t appreciate the lecture that we received,” Miller said. “Because I think we’re here and have been here trying to help you. To make it sound like you have, that somehow we’re committing a crime or we’re doing something that is evil, I find offensive. I mean, we’re only here to help.”
     Perhaps the most heated response came from Contra Costa Judge Mary Ann O’Malley, who suggested mismanagement as the primary reason for the court’s financial troubles. “The citizens deserve better,” O’Malley said. “I don’t want to punish them for their court’s mismanaged decisions.”
     O’Malley also called the media coverage of San Francisco’s budget woes “caustic and nasty.” Recently, San Francisco revealed it had prepared to layoff 122 employees in May last year, which would have ostensibly solved its budget problems. The AOC then put pressure on the court not to lay off any staff, as it could jeopardize a deal it was making with the Legislature for a $230 million funding and revenue package.
     When the deal fell through anyway, Feinstein said publicly that the court found itself in an even worse position as a result of trusting the AOC.
     O’Malley also took umbrage with the court’s insistence that the AOC commit to advocating in the Legislature for additional funding for the trial courts. “People have been working very hard to try to come up with a solution, and the rhetoric I have been hearing on the TV and news has not been helpful,” she said. “To lay blame is lame and doesn’t belong. Frankly, to say that we need this commitment, it’s insulting. It’s absolutely insulting.”
     Judge Feinstein was ill and could not attend the Friday meeting, but signaled via email that she would approve of the agreement once it was amended to cut out most of the strings, allow the court five years to repay the loan and include all the original provisions of the initial agreement.
     Judge David Wesley of Los Angeles moved to approve the no-strings agreement but withdrew his motion, saying, “Since it’s acceptable to Judge Feinstein, it’s acceptable to me.”
     The Alliance of California Judges, a group fighting for increased funding for the trial courts and judicial branch reforms, issued a statement after the meeting, saying: “These conditions would have been an improper usurpation of the independent constitutional authority of a local trial court and presiding judge.This problem demonstrates why the current funding mechanisms for our trial courts are a failure, and why the alliance has urged fundamental reform.”

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