In Defense of the AOC

     I read with interest Judge Horan’s May 30 comments in the Courthouse News Service. Judge Horan had a distinguished career on the bench, and word has it that he was modest in his retirement statement that he merely “carried my end of things.”
     Still, there are matters upon which reasonable minds may differ, and I must beg to differ with my distinguished colleague from Los Angeles.
     Judge Horan is, of course, correct that the Tehama County Court lasted without the AOC from 1860 until unification and centralization.
     However, the correct term for those days would be “barely survived”.
     It was the court’s newly centralized voice that obtained adequate branch funding and provided the organization to make the most of resources which are always limited in contrast to ever increasing mandates flowing from the legislature.
     I began practicing law in Tehama County in 1973: I tried hearings in the law library (think tiny and without elbowroom); I tried jury trials in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers (think jurors sitting close enough to look over your shoulder).
     I often appeared in the backroom of a local attorney, which room served as the Corning Justice Court.
     I watched a fine Superior Court judge suffer a specious lawsuit against not just him but other north state judges; his court had not a dime to defend that suit. A defense firm out of Redding California provided pro bono representation to those judges.
     Imagine the ethical outrage were such a defense accepted today. Of course, today AOC counsel would defend those judges.
     When I began my work as a judge 12 years ago, my supervising clerk often told stories of the “bad old days”, when small courts like ours could barely afford office supplies and when even basic funding was but unimagined luxury.
     Today the Tehama County Court and numerous other courts remain underfunded. Judge Horan notes we are a court with four judges and a commissioner.
     The Commissioner handles only our mandatory child support services calendar; we share her with four counties; she sits in this county one morning each week. We have no other commissioners, and we have no research attorneys.
     Judge Horan is correct; not long ago we had 44 employees, but budget reduction has reduced that number to 36 We cannot afford to fill the vacancies any more than we could afford to replace services now provided by the AOC.
     Henry Ford did not make cheaper automobiles by setting up assembly plants in every county in the land, and Apple Computer does not bring prices down by working through autonomous local computer factories. I do not grieve that the industrial revolution wrenched from my grasp the joy of local self sufficiency.
     It is the reduced cost of centralized services that makes such services available to my court. I repeat from the letter prompting Judge Horan’s critique.
     The AOC provides my court with general legal assistance, continuing education, financial services, financial and legal compliance support, technology support, labor negotiation expertise and representation, contract advice and drafting, and legal assistance in all matters including representation against the frivolous lawsuits filed continually against the court, its officer’s and staff — and much more.
     If the AOC were abolished and my court’s meager share of its budget distributed to us, we could not begin to “contract for” the wealth of services provided to courts by that body.
     Is the AOC perfect? Not according to the May report of the Strategic Evaluation Committee. That report makes general comments and suggests specific changes to increase efficiency.
     Let us not forget that all systems tend towards disorder. Outside force is required to forestay entropy in our lives — personal and professional. There is no government organization that would not benefit from frequent looks at its efficacy.
     Please also remember that it was the Chief Justice who appointed that committee, and she has commented that many of the suggestions of its report are based on information from dedicated AOC employees.
     My autonomy in running the legal side of our court is not in question. The Chief and the Judicial Council, aided by the AOC, provide a far more useful voice to the legislative and executive branches than could individual courts.
     Without doubt, all central authority should be scrutinized and kept efficient. My personal views find much to criticize in state and federal governance, but my differences with those centralized authorities do not lead me to urge that they be abolished.
     So it is with the courts.
     We need the AOC. I suggest that we all get behind the Chief, work on cleaning our own house, and present a unified voice to the public and to our sister branches.
     
     Richard Scheuler is the presiding judge of Tehama County Superior Court.

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