SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The head of California’s embattled court administrative agency announced his retirement on Tuesday. The tenure of Director William Vickrey at the head of the Administrative Office of the Courts covered two decades during which the agency grew dramatically but also increasingly became drawn into controversy.
Vickrey’s shift in the top administrative post covered a time of great transformation within the state’s judicial administration. The Administrative Office of the Courts grew from a small body of civil servants about 20 years ago into the powerful and assertive staff of 1100 bureaucrats of today who extend their reach deep into the rules and finances of California’s 58 county trial courts.
The agency was rocked by a state audit early this year that accused the agency of mismanagement in its handling of an expensive contract with a private consultant to develop an IT system for the courts. Vickrey, as the agency’s director, created both friends and enemies in the handling of that project and the flow of funds coming out of Sacramento and going to the state’s widespread and far-stretched network of county trial courts.
“I am grateful to Bill for his tireless dedication, innovation, and perseverance in helping to reform California’s courts and making the judiciary a true third branch of government in this state,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye on Tuesday. “He will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.”
She said Vickrey had told her of his plans to retire last August. That timing would suggest it was tied to the departure of the former chief justice, Ronald George, who announced his retirement in July.
Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) said, “Bill Vickrey’s resignation gives the chief justice an opportunity to set a new standard of openness and accountability, which is what we in the Legislature have been pushing for.”
Earlier this year, Lowenthal joined with Assembly member Ricardo Lara (D- Bell Gardens) in sending a letter to the chief justice that called for Vickrey’s dismissal.
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye reacted strongly to that request. She said the letter was “a serious attempt to interfere with the judicial branch” and defended the director as “an invaluable resource to the judicial branch.”
In a separate but related reaction to AOC policies, Charles Calderon (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation last month called the Trial Court Bill of Rights intended to transfer power back from the administrative office to the local courts.
In an interview a month ago, Vickrey said, “I appreciate Mr. Calderon’s concerns but in this case what he aspires to have is already in place. That doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements about fiscal priorities, but we’ve got a system of presiding judges and court executive officers to try to address those issues.”
“The Judicial Council doesn’t have any authority to intervene in the way the trial courts manages its funds,” he argued.
The announcement of Vickrey’s retirement on Tuesday came in a letter sent to the judiciary’s governing body, the Judicial Council.
“Yesterday, I formally notified the Chief Justice of my plan to retire in September of this year,” he said. “Last August, I shared my plan to retire in the fall of 2011 with Chief Justice George and our then Chief Justice-Nominee. I agreed to remain through the end of the current legislative session.”
“I look forward to continuing to work with you for the next several months as we continue the important work with which we are charged on behalf of the people of California,” said Vickrey in conclusion.
A judge who has often differed with the AOC under Vickrey’s leadership commented on a continuing need for reform within the administrative office.
“When changes occur, it’s a good time for reevalutation,” said Judge David Lampe in Kern County who belongs to group called the Alliance of California Judges that has been critical of AOC policy. “Certainly one person’s retirement does not change the need for reform. The issues are not about one person.”
Speaking for a more lonstanding group of judges, the California Judges Association, Judge Keith Davis in San Bernardino County said of Vickrey’s retirement, “His efforts have brought new programs and resources to courts throughout the state. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know Bill, and to observe and admire his dedication to the judicial branch, know that we will miss him greatly.”