(CN) – A Sacramento judge has continued banging on the central court bureaucracy, demanding a map to its labyrinth of money and power, a set of passageways that remain hidden to the public, the press and the judges. In emails sent off Thursday, the judge asks for basic information on how roughly $118 million in “as needed” funds is being spent and how much of it continues to be pushed to a private contractor working on a widely rejected IT system that is a pet project of the highly paid bureaucrats.
The judge wants to know why the highest judicial policy group in California, called the Judicial Council, decided a month ago to halt an IT project for one year only to find out a month later that the IT system was not in fact halted and continues to bleed somewhere between $700,000 and $1 million a week.
“I am concerned that any ‘freeze’ is illusory when $118,681,000 was available to the Administrative Office of the Courts to spend `as needed’,” wrote Sacramento Judge Kevin McCormick. He described a deal that grants enormous spending authority to the bureaucracy that has often been at loggerheads with the trial court leaders.
The judge points out that the Judicial Council voted and passed a “one year pause” to funding for the IT program in July. One month later, the council members were told by the director of the IT program, “We are now relabeling it. It’s not necessarily a one-year pause.”
That “relabeling” statement brought not a single statement of protest or complaint from members of the Judicial Council, suggesting, as has long been argued, that the council has little power over the bureaucracy.
“I do not understand,” said McCormick, who is not a member of the council, in his Thursday email to the director of the administrative office. “It was either a one-year pause or it was not.”
The wash of money is set against enormous cuts in public money going to California’s courts that has lead to hundreds of layoffs, long lines at the courthouses and closed courtrooms. The legislature and the governor have cut fully $600 million from the annual total of $2 billion that was spent on the state’s court system only a couple years ago.
The grinding hardship down at the trial court level contrasts with lavish spending that continues on the bureaucracy’s pet projects, along with rich salaries, fat pension deals for the top brass and refusal to provide basic accounting by the administrators on high. On the hard end of the relationship, the Los Angeles courts are planning layoffs of 1,000 court workers over the next three years, and San Francisco is planning to lay off give walking papers to 100 employees next month.
“Please provide me the total amount of spending by or through the AOC on anything related to CCMS since July 22, 2011,” McCormick demands to know, referring to the date when spending on the IT project, called the Court Case Management System, was supposed to have ceased.
“Perhaps I am naive to have thought cessation of of spending on CCMS so that the courts can remain open to the public we are sworn to serve can be taken literally,” said the judge. He has battled the bureaucracy for something as simple as a list of the people it employs and how much they are paid. He has received only pieces of the list.
He also asked for information on an “emergency fund” managed by the administrators. The reply from the AOC was that his would request would be treated as a “public records request,” throwing it into a process that takes months and, based on requests by this news service, often results in either rejection of the request or extensive black-outs of information.
Most fundamentally, McCormick sliced and diced the administrative agency in answer to a recent survey sent out by Justice Arthur Scotland who heads a committee that is supposed to propose reforms in the bureaucracy. The committee has already created a bump of controversy with Scotland’s suggestion that it might take a year for his committee to make any recommendations.
“The existence of a large centralized bureaucracy with the power to manage local courts ensures that the desires and funding needs of the central power will always take precedence of the local courts,” said McCormick in his survey answer last month.
The Sacramento judge flays each department of the roughly 1000-member bureaucracy in turn, starting with the top brass.
They receive a full-ride, 22.5% pension, where the taxpayer foots the entire bill and the official pays none of it, on top of generous salaries. “This unjustifiable and unwarranted ‘gift’ to employees making salaries approaching and exceeding $200,000 per year should cease immediately,” wrote the judge.
He also takes apart the “Education Division,” which often behaves more like a propaganda arm for the administrative agency, producing slick videos hailing the benefits of the IT program, for example. The videos are cast in the news style with a narrator who plays the role of a reporter and signs off as a reporter would, but fails to include any independent or critical viewpoints.
More than 100 people work in the education division, the judge notes, a ratio much higher than that for education programs for prosecutors or appellate judges throughout the nation. “There is simply no justification for a staff of the size the AOC has amassed,” said McCormick.
The lobbying arm of the administrative office employs 12 people paid from $77,000 to $161,000. The judge describes that staff size as “irresponsible,” noting that the AOC lobbyists have at times pursued an agenda “contrary to the best interests of the local courts.”
He takes on the Information Services Division, the outfit directly linked to the controversial IT program, with an extraordinarily large staff of 164 people. The judge notes that more than half of the staff is paid more than $100,000 a year. “Even more astounding, 24 ‘temporary employees’ are paid in excess of $100,000 per year.”
But his strongest condemnation is for the IT system that started out with a price tag of $260 million, an amount that grew and grew until now it stands somewhere between $1.9 billion and $3 billion, said the judge.
“Not single dollar should be spent on this system until it is certain the expenditures will not cause court closures, reduced hours or layoffs of courtroom staff. Expending any money on a computer system with such a flawed financial history is unjustified.”