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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
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End of the Line

The speakers represented a full array of constituencies among California's judges.

The head of the longstanding California Judges Association was opposed. Leaders of the newer Alliance of California Judges were opposed.

The head of the presiding judges committee, representing judges at the head of their courthouses throughout the 58 counties, was opposed. The head of a committee of judges that spent a year investigating the central bureaucracy of California's courts was opposed.

They all took the same position. There were no little nuances. They spoke with one voice.

They said the highly paid employees at the Administrative Office of the Courts must show up for work at the office. The bureaucrats should work in the bureau.

So, with all that firepower, with that unified voice from leaders of groups that, taken together, represent pretty much every trial judge in the state, how far did they get. How persuasive were they in opposing the central office administrators who wanted to hang on to their telecommuting privilege, who wanted to keep working from home one day a week.

The judges won not a single vote. Not one.

The Judicial Council, where all members from the judiciary are appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, voted unanimously in favor of allowing the administrators to continue telecommuting.

Bureaucrats - 17, Judges - 0.

At an enrobing ceremony last month in San Diego, I talked with a trial lawyer and mentioned the telecommuting issue. He knew immediately what I was talking about.

"Yeah, I would like to work from Switzerland," was his comment.

Telecommuting had been abused by the bureaucrats. It was pervasive, with 40% of one department telecommuting, and indeed, with one staff member working from Switzerland.

The revelation of how the privilege had been indulged was just one in a series of black eyes for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Just as the new chief justice was coming into office, the office staff gave themselves a retroactive 3-5% pay hike when court budgets were already under stress. They had also set up a taxpayer-supported 22% pension contribution with no employee match for the top bureaucrats, a scheme not allowed under federal law.

The top-loaded pension plan was stopped only under pressure from the Legislature.

More fundamentally, the bureaucracy's effort to take over the fiscal and policy affairs of the trial courts had brought anger and opposition from a great number of trial judges. That pressure resulted in the year-long investigation by the judges' Strategic Evaluation Committee that resulted in a long list of recommended reforms.

Lest there was any doubt that the reforms were supported by California's judges, a whopping 90% of the judges answering an online poll said they favored the reform committee's proposals that included radically downsizing the central bureaucracy and taking away its role in setting policy.

At the Judicial Council last week, the head of that reform committee, Judge Charles Wachob, answered the administrators' argument that telecommuting was necessary for employee retention, or, in other words, they might quit.

"Right now in this market," said Wachob, "I think that the retention of employees is not difficult. I'm sure there are a lot of laid off trial court employees who would love to apply for jobs here."

Another argument in favor of telecommuting came from a council member who said, "We can't get involved in the day-to-day operation of AOC. The next argument would be, should AOC buy blue pens or black pens?"

Leading judges whose constituencies covered just about every judge in the state were lined up on one side making strong arguments. Administrators and their backers were lined up on the other side making weak arguments.

And in the end, it was no contest.

It was as though the judges were playing out of their league and never had a chance.

From the vantage point of time and distance, it looked to me like the reform train came to a halt right there in that meeting.

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