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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Hot-Button Ideas Set for Monday Meeting on Future of CA Courts

(CN) - A fundamental philosophical difference over how California courts should operate came to a head in San Francisco on Monday. The line of contention runs between those who would seek to centralize parts of the vast court system and those who defend the independence of California's local trial courts.

The Commission on the Future of the California Court System was set up last year by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She appointed roughly 50 voting members made up of judges, clerks and lawyers, and named Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan as the chair.

Early proposals coming out the commission have raised strong opposition from judges and labor unions over what they see as the outline of another incursion into local court operations by a centralized bureaucracy, a notion rejected by Corrigan.

"If you looked at a movie about a courtroom in the old west or in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' you would recognize that courtroom as pretty similar to what we do most days in California," she said. "We're now in the 21st century. It's legitimate to ask, 'What can we do better?' Then we will do nothing more than give a report to the chief justice and it's up to her to decide what, if any, ideas have merit and what will she carry forward."

Those decisions are put in place by a variety of committees appointed by the chief justice and a large administrative staff, in the past called the Administrative Office of the Courts and now rebranded as the "staff" of the Judicial Council, a rule-making body where most members are appointed by the chief justice.

The staff is the San Francisco-based central bureaucracy of the courts, with roughly 800 employees, that has been the frequent target of searing criticism from the state Legislature and from trial court judges, particularly those in the Alliance of California Judges. The group was founded in 2009 and now counts a membership of roughly 500 judges.

"The more you remove judges from administering their courts, it potentially hurts our independence and hurts the legitimacy of what we do," said Judge David Lampe who sits in Bakersfield and is a founding director of the Alliance. "The more that can be kept local, the better."

Lampe said the Alliance's concern is with preserving the independence of local judges in keeping with the provisions of the 1997 Trial Court Funding Act. The legislation established a system of statewide funding for the trial courts, but it also required the Judicial Council to set up "a decentralized system of trial court management."

The president of the California Judges Association, a more longstanding group of judges whose members at times overlap with the Alliance membership, said his group started raising concerns about the commission's ideas late last year.

"Many courts have expressed great concern about thoughts to centralize human resources, labor talks and administration," said Judge Eric Taylor, the CJA's president. "These are complex issues involving sensitive local relationships in vastly unique courts across our state. The way of CJA is to fully collect and discuss information on all pertinent topics in order to take meaningful positions."

Another line of attack on the commission's early work has come from labor unions.

California courts employ thousands of workers and some of the ideas floated by the commission, such as the centralization of labor negotiations, raised criticism from labor leaders who also see the old AOC's hidden hand.


"The Futures Commission is speculating that centralization rather than local autonomy will achieve savings," wrote Michelle Castro in an email on behalf of the Service Employees International Union. "But given the bureaucracy's track record of centralization debacles and its history of waste, we are doubtful. Again and again, the central authorities target frontline service providers for cuts, which means that services are degraded and the public suffers. This is no different."

Included on the commission's Monday's agenda are three controversial subjects: the centralization of labor negotiations and hiring policy, replacement of court reporters with automated recorders, and the sharing of case information along with a concern about "incompatible case management systems."

That last agenda item raised the ghost of a massive, failed effort to create docketing software common to all California trial courts, called the Court Case Management System. The project cost California taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars and became a bête noire of the California Legislature, the CJA and the Alliance.

Included among the names on the futures commission are three clerks with deep roots into the past, Mike Roddy, Michael Planet and Jake Chatters who all cooperated closely with the AOC to install the problematic and labor-intensive software in courts where they worked, Roddy in San Diego, Planet in Ventura and Chatters at the time in Sacramento.

The software project was fought tooth and nail by the Alliance.

"We are deeply concerned that the Commission will propose a statewide case management system along the lines of CCMS, the failed technology project that cost the taxpayers half a billion dollars and brought our branch to the brink of financial ruin," wrote Alliance president Judge Steve White in a letter sent Tuesday to Justice Corrigan.

"The mentality that bigger is better, central control is better than local administration, and uniformity is better than diversity, is what led to a series of administrative disasters culminating in the spectacular failure of CCMS," wrote White, who sits in Sacramento.

But Corrigan distinguished the work of the commission from past administrative endeavors and any suspicion of an underlying agenda. "This is not an implementation group. It's an examination group," she said. "This undertaking is nothing like CCMS."

Corrigan added that the concepts that will be discussed at Monday's public meeting originated from judges and court clerks, not from AOC staff members, via a survey sent out statewide last year. "The notion that there are some hidden bureaucrats with an agenda who are driving this is simply not the case," she said. "Every single response went to the judges, justices and court executive officers on the commission. They reviewed those suggestions themselves."

Lampe with the Alliance acknowledged that point.

"We understand these are just concepts. We know there's no proposal for implementation at this time. But these ideas being advanced sound to us like ideas that have been advanced historically by the staff and the AOC that reflect increased control by state administration," said Lampe. "So we just want to be on the record of stating that in the comment process, so members are aware that a substantial number of judges are concerned and have always been concerned about this."

The other agenda item on centralizing employment policy and labor negotiations caused a separate reaction from a group of nine unions representing court workers, saying it makes no sense to dismantle a local employment structure built over many years.

"The current trial court employment structure was created through a very deliberative and meaningful process that considered efficiency of administration, employee rights and interests, as well as the unique nature of each individual county-based trial court," the letter says. "The existing system allows trial courts and their employees to address their own needs based on their local circumstances and workloads."

The third controversial item on the agenda, replacing court reporters with automated recorders, was questioned by trial judges as well as labor.

"It's been a long standing effort of the AOC to increase electronic recording," said Lampe. "We as judges have experience with both electronic recording and court reporters. There's no comparison. The electronic recording is a mess, you can't make sense of it. Until somebody invents the technology that will literally transcribe everybody's words as spoken without confusion, so be it. But it doesn't exist now. So we see these proposals as being vestiges of a continued effort that we've seen in the past."

On that point, Corrigan said it's the commission's job to explore all sides of every idea, even the old ones.

"Wonderful, well-meaning people have said 'why don't we try this,' and at first blush it looks like a great idea. And then we launch that idea without looking at what it costs us. One of the reasons we're asking the questions is periodically people come up with these ideas and then they get kicked around for years or decades. We'd like to be able to say we studied that idea and it cost us 'x' or it would cost us 'y.'"

The supreme court justice said she understood the judges' reservations and concerns about the commission's work masquerading as a bureaucratic power grab.

"There are people, and not without some historical foundation, who just assume that's the way everybody rigs the system," she said.

Corrigan pointed to a 2009 effort to take away the authority of the local courts to choose their own presiding judges and head clerks and transfer that power to the central bureaucracy. "That was greatly controversial, and legitimately so," she said. "However that didn't happen. And that's not what we're trying to replicate."

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