SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Faced with bone-deep cuts in Gov. Brown’s proposed budget, the judicial hierarchy in California has resorted to old methods in trying to persuade the Legislature to undo the damage. One of those tactics, circulating a petition among presiding judges, has run into a strong objection from a judge in Northern California, while another old move, creating a committee, has been blasted by a Los Angeles judge.
A petition circulating last week for signature by presiding judges and head clerks throughout California said the proposed cuts “threaten to dismantle our system of justice entirely” and “will have catastrophic, far-reaching impacts on our ability to preserve equal access to justice for all Californians.”
But Presiding Judge John Kennelly of Sierra County Superior Court questioned the effectiveness of the petition and wisdom of trying to get all the state’s presiding judges into lock-step.
“The governor and the legislature have stopped listening to our whining,” wrote Kennelly, expressing what many trial judges have been saying privately for months.
“Why?” Kennelly asks. “Because we have not gone hat in hand to them and admitted what a fiasco and mistake CCMS was to our branch financially, that we are sorry we spent approximately $540 million of taxpayers money and it has not achieved what we promised it would, it won’t happen again and in the future we will provide a proper accounting of where our money goes.”
Kennelly is referring to the Court Case Management System, an IT system that was terminated a month ago after a half-billion dollars was squandered on the project.
Kennelly, from a two-judge court in Gold Rush country in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, also put in writing what many trial judges have been saying, that there continues to be no explanation of how and why the CCMS fiasco went on for so long and what measures will be taken to ensure it cannot happen again.
“This letter does not acknowledge that the Branch should take its fair share of responsibility for the predicament we are in,” in his email. “We need to look at this from the governor’s and legislature’s perspective, which is that somehow we spent $540 million on a program that will not be used as it was intended.”
“They will not be sympathetic to our situation until they have confidence we will not do this again,” he continued. “By the way, how did this happen? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer about how CCMS got this far with no benchmarks or accountability.”
In an interview, Kennelly said that it is not in an independent judge’s nature to simply go along with group think and bureaucratic orthodoxy.
“One of the things is that we have spent our whole professional career advocating and disagreeing, but that’s what we’re built to do,” said Kennelly in the interview. “Then we become judges, and there’s some expectation that all 58 courts are supposed to be on the same page, all the time.”
He added that he agrees with the position taken by other courts in opposition to the governor’s proposal to wipe out all the reserves that each court keeps, a bit like a checking account, to manage their budgets.
“I’m in total agreement that our reserves should not be swept,” he said. “And they’re not reserves. Our court doesn’t have reserves — that’s money in our bank account that would last us two weeks. It’s to pay our bills.”
But, he said, the presiding judges should not be required to sign a letter that sends the wrong message to the legislature.
“I don’t think we should all be required to sign a letter,” he said. “The reason the letter gets signed is for solidarity, but it’s not working. My letter conveys that we are sending the wrong message, that we spend money we don’t account for. We’ve got to fix our perception and recognize we did make a mistake with CCMS.”
The tactic of circulating a petition among the presiding judges has previously been used, to no effect.
A petition was circulated among presiding judges at the beginning of the year in opposition to a court reform measure pending in the Assembly. The measure, AB 1208, would starve the administrative bureaucracy of funds and strip away most of its power to siphon off money intended for the trial courts.
A group of presiding judges, including the presiding judge in Los Angeles, refused to sign the petition, and AB 1208 went on to pass the Assembly three weeks later, with the backing of the majority leader and the speaker. The bill is now pending in the state Senate.
In a second familiar move, the chief justice appointed a new committee last week to lobby the legislature to reverse or ameliorate the additional cut of $544 million in the governor’s newly revised budget for the courts. Coincidentally, that amount is almost exactly the same amount that was spent by the court bureaucracy on the failed IT project.
That new committee includes only one judge from Los Angeles, retired Judge Terry Friedman, who is widely seen as not being representative of the Los Angeles court. Friedman, for example, provided a testimonial in favor of CCMS as part of the administrative office’s in-house production of a slick video promoting the ruinous project. At the same time that he was promoting the IT system, his own court was strongly opposing it.
“Judge Friedman has generally not been seen as a representative of Los Angeles by most of the the judges of L.A.,” said Judge Robert Dukes, “and I think his appointment is an implied slap at both Judge Wesley (our APJ who is on the Council) and our PJ Judge Edmon — a former Judicial Council member and PJ of the most complex and powerful trial court in the United States suffering the most devastating cuts in our history.”
Judge David Wesley is the assistant presiding judge in Los Angeles. He alone on the governing Judicial Council voted in March to stop spending any more money on the CCMS project. The council, instead, decided to spend another $8 million on the project — while terminating it.
Judge Lee Edmon is a former member of the Judicial Council who also often voted independently of the majority and the recommendations of the central administrators. She is now the presiding judge for Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest court in the nation.
In political terms, the Los Angeles delegation of senators and assemblymembers makes up almost a third of the legislature. The fact that the leaders of the court have not been appointed to the committee lobbying the legislature for a reversal of the cuts is unlikely to be lost on the delegation of L.A. lawmakers.
In turn, the effectiveness of a second, politically important committee of judges has come under challenge recently.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye formed the Strategic Evaluation Committee last year to investigate the administrative office and recommend reforms. That decision had as one objective to tamp down a slow-burning furor among trial judges whose budgets were getting squeezed year after year, while the central bureaucracy, which had quadrupled in size, continued to spend hundreds of millions on the controversial IT system.
The SEC, as the reform committee was referred to, has suffered a number of setbacks since it was set up.
One of its members had to push the slow-moving administrative office simply to provide a complete list of its work force. Then the committee chairman, retired Justice Arthur Scotland, left to work as a lawyer on separation-of-powers contest over the controller’s decision last year to withhold legislators’ pay until they passed a balanced budget.
Even so, the committee has drafted a hard-hitting report recommending substantial changes to the administrative bureaucracy, Courthouse News has been told. However, Courthouse News has also been told that the draft report is currently being watered down.
A member of the committee said he could not comment one way or another on that issue.