Debate at Top of California Courts Opens Up

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) In a sign of change, a new member of the most powerful committee at the top of California’s court system opened up discussion meetings over court policy and finances for the first time in 14 years. The state’s chief justice then blamed a drastic budget cut on the “din” from other legislative proposals about the courts.
     The day of discussion takes place ahead of the formal meetings of the Judicial Council, top policy-making body for the courts, where votes are taken often following staff presentations and little debate. And for years, those pre-meeing discussions were closed to the public and the press.
     “Those many and I believe many valuable and interesting discussions were closed. And the information there was only heard by those who were in attendance,” said Justice Douglas Miller, recently appointed to the Executive and Planning Committee.
     “This also led, though, to an unfortunate perception, that the real discussions of the Judicial Council took place in private or in secret, and that we as a Judicial Council on our business meeting the next day simply rubber stamped those issues.”
     Miller then said the closed meetings also contributed to the notion that bureaucrats from the Administrative Office of the Courts run the show, a conviction held by many experienced judges.
     The view that a cabal ran the courts largely in secret was articulated in answers from judges to a survey put out by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In those answers, the judges had also offered suggestions on opening up the council’s business and doing a better job of supporting the trial courts.
     “Stay tuned, because there are more changes to come,” Miller added. “There are more proposals in the works, all inspired by council discussions and informed by the responses to the survey conducted by presiding judges at the request of the chief justice.”
     Some of those changes include increasing the number of judicial council meetings from six to eight, and setting up a network of judicial council liaisons to individual courts. “Court leaders would have designated council members that would become familiar with their court, listening to their concerns, bringing those to the attention of the council, be willing to answer questions, and then obtain information if it’s needed,” Miller said.
     In a separate area of controversy, the council’s Accountability and Efficiency committee is in the process of auditing the AOC’s budget and its pricey contracts with consultants, and expects to report its findings to the council in October.
     In other matters, the Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye has also established three new internal committees: one to find a new AOC director to replace the outgoing Bill Vickrey, a governance issues committee and a “parliamentary” committee to look at the council’s meeting rules.
     “The chief has encouraged us to take a fresh look at how the council operates. Everything from the conduct of our meetings to the strategic plan for the branch, to the composition of the council itself,” Miller said.
     The meeting then turned to the matter of direct import on the operation of the courts the $350 million cut in the budget OK’d by the legislature earlier this summer.
     Yolo County Presiding Judge David Rosenberg recommended that courts implement a “Draconian toolbox” of small cuts.
     “Some of the easy items at the get-go is, you know, getting rid of Post-its, things of that nature. Getting rid of coffee. But the toolbox can have 100 different items depending on how far you need to go and how much money you need to ultimately save and cut,” said Rosenberg who is also the incoming head of the presding judges committee.
     Council members suggested going back to the legislature, and the Governor to ask for a restoration of funding.
     “I must say that for what its worth, the legislature and Governor have to provide, in my opinion, an adequate level of funding for the judicial branch to do their job. We are a constitutional branch and we have to have a certain amount of money,” Rosenberg said.
     Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said she had urged the legislature to spare the judicial branch, by explaining what harsh budget cuts would mean for the courts, but her pleas were drowned out by what she called “other noise” being made in Sacramento by judges dissatisfied with the judicial branch.
     “There was too much other noise going on about the judicial branch that wasn’t about the budget,” she said.
     The statements appeared to be a reference to AB 1208, legislation intended to restore financial independence to the individual county courts who that are now subject to an overarching bureaucracy based in San Francisco, the Administrative Office of the Courts, that controls finance and policy. The office has been the subject of deep criticism from a majority of trial judges in the state, shown in a series of surveys earlier this year.
     The chief justice, the administrative office, and many individual members of the Judicial Council opposed AB 1208. But it enjoyed support from a majority of the state’s trial judges, based on answers to a survey by the California Judges Association, and it was supported by a host of courts large and small, from Los Angeles Superior to Sacramento, Amador, Kern and Mariposa.
     “In my view that other noise that created the din that took away the focus of the branch and undercut our ability to hold the line on the budget cut,” said the chief justice.
     Immediately chiming in, Marin’s head clerk, Kim Turner, said, “It was more of a reason to cut us. For whatever reason we can’t agree so we deserve to be cut. Unbelievable.”

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