(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.