Judge Blasts Council Failure|to Control Central Administrators

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Speaking for hundreds of reformist judges in California, Sacramento Judge Steve White blasted the Judicial Council over its failure to “unhorse” the powerful bureaucrats of the judiciary’s central administrative office.
     “Hundreds of judges are still skeptical that the council will ever see the need and find the will to unhorse the Administrative Office of the Courts,” White said.
     White pushed for democratic election of the council from among the state’s trial judges instead of by appointment from the chief justice, an issue that has been simmering for at least two years.
     Speaking directly to the Judicial Council, he hit on a series of battles old and new, between the state’s trial judges and the administrators. The most recent is the decision by the administrators to give themselves raises while trial courts are desperate for funds, firing staff and closing courtrooms.
     The judge asked, “How can the council, in a collapsed economy in which a week doesn’t pass without courtrooms closing and court employees being laid off, conceivably justify continued pay raises for AOC employees?”
     His denunciation of the status quo on the council was part of a meeting that considered issues related to the massive budget cuts for the courts, and in particular a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to pool the reserve funds that allow each local court to operate.
     The plan has alarmed judges throughout the state whose courts rely on those funds to meet financial obligations throughout the year. With fund balances being combined in one $27 million pot, the concern is the fund will be drained by periodic draws from local courts.
     Addressing the state’s finance director, Ana Matosantos, Judge James Herman asked, “Once we run out of that funding, is there some mechanism where we can work with you to say, look, this is a critical situation that needs to be addressed? It’s easy to see how very quickly those reserves could be exhausted in an emergency situation.”
     She replied, “The flip side of the equation is what are the reductions that we think are appropriate to be made.”
     She added that the council can always ask the Legislature for additional money if the statewide reserve runs out, a daunting prospect given the view held by many legislators that the council and the administrators have been extraordinarily wasteful with public funds.
     Exhibit A for the legislators has been a half-billion-dollar software project that has now been terminated, but only after contributing greatly to the financial hole the judiciary is now in, and damaging the reputation of the council and the administrators in the Legislature.
     But various perquisites seen as self-indulgences have also brought pointed criticism from the legislature, including a lavish pension plan for top administrators and most recently, the pay raises.
     The conduct of the administrators also brought what has been called a rebellion from the state’s trial court judges, fed up with what they’ve seen as arrogance and bad management from the top.
     A report from a Strategic Evaluation Committee of judges outside the council proposed a host of fundamental reforms to the administrative office, first and foremost that it take on the role of service and support rather than push policy.
     A decision on the reforms proposed by the report is scheduled for the council’s Friday session.
     The principal focus of Thursday’s meeting was the huge issue that hangs over the court system, which is the bone-deep cuts that have been made to its budget over the last three years.
     Judges on the council prodded Matosantos to give a clearer time-frame for when department of finance would start putting together the group it says will work with the judiciary on the statewide reserve plan.
     Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County said, “The cut-backs that have occurred in the branch would be similar to giving the legislature sufficient funding for 100 members. There are 120 members in the legislature. And you wouldn’t for a moment think of funding the legislature in a way that could support only 00 offices.”
     “Every member of the legislature has to have sufficient funding to do their job. Same is true for judges. And we’re on the midst, or at least the beginnings, of what may be a constitutional crisis if we can’t do our job.”
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye also pushed the state finance director for a clear answer on planning for a statewide reserve for the courts, saying, “How soon should we contact you about that?”
     Matosantos said, “very, very soon.”
     The council has been criticized by judges and legislators for pursuing a strategy of trying to get more money from the Legislature, where all budgets are suffering, and especially when the courts’ own financial house is not in order.
     An effort to cut down the size of the administrative office is one of the key recommendations of of the Strategic Evaluation Committee, that also called for an end to the practice of telecommuting among some of the office’s lawyers and a complete overhaul of its general counsel’s office.
     The report has drawn more than 400 posted comments by judges, with the vast majority pushing to implement the reforms.
     “For once, please simply listen to the judges of this state, and actually hear what they are saying. Do not presume to second-guess their public comments, or dismiss the hundreds calling for full and immediate implementation of the SEC recommendations,” White told the council Thursday.
     The council’s powerful Executive and Planning Committee issued a response to the report earlier this week, largely agreeing with the report’s findings but then setting a lengthy timetable for action and calling for further study of many of its proposals.
     “Those that involve heavy lifting it seems, are essentially pitched to the AOC to look into and report back. The council has historically not stepped up to its responsibilities,” White said. “The judges are rightly concerned about the lengthy saga of the AOC mismanaging major projects and treating the courts as subordinate dependencies. But the fundamental blame here does not fall on the AOC. It falls squarely on the council.”
     In an interview, White said the committee’s response to the report illustrates a “disconnect” between hundreds of California trial judges and the few selected to lead them.
     “There is a great disconnect between Executive and Planning’s proposal and the judges in this state,” White said in an interview. “A significant number of recommendations that implicate money, personnel, or shifts in policy they invite the AOC to explore and study. Some of them go out as far as 15 months. There will be yet another phase where they study and report to the Judicial Council.”
     White also noted that the committee’s response gives only a cursory mention to the hundreds of comments from judges.
     “In a group so interested in getting public comment, when they got an overwhelming number of comments calling for immediate adoption of the report — what you have is them behaving almost dismissively,” said White, reflecting a long-held perception that the administrators and many of the council members are arrogant and dismissive of the working courts.
     “They reference them obliquely and give them no attention to speak of,” he said. He noted that such inattention would have not have followed if a significant number of comments opposed the report.
     In his address to the council, the Sacramento judge also a hit on long-held anger over what was largely seen as a back door push by the administrative office to put an amendment into an under-the-radar trailer bill in the Legislature that would have allowed the judicial council, and thus the administrators, to exert direct control over the clerks that run local trial courts.
     Such a move would have amounted to an enormous shift of power to run the court away from the local presiding judges and to the centralized administration. When discovered, it raised a hue and cry and was struck from the trailer bill.
     But the anger has continued, causing shouting at a judicial conference last year, when trial judges demanded to know the administrative authors of the legislation. An appellate judge said at the time that he knew the authors but did not want to name them.
     “At least two of the apparent perpetrators (as recently revealed in a news report) received pay raises since this attempt to upend the trial courts,” White told the council. “This is damning evidence that the Judicial Council governance model is broken.”
     Quoting President Coolidge, he added, “Once bamboozled, impossible to unbamboozle.”
     “It’s time for the council to actually superintend the AOC instead of the other way around,” White said in urging that the council members be elected by the state’s judges instead of sitting by appointment from the state’s chief justice.
     “A judicially elected council would not have tolerated these disconnects between the Administrative Office of the Courts pursuing its own vision and the courts trying to stay open and do justice. The SEC report identifies many of the AOC’s failings but the foundation for those failings is a council not elected by the courts and not representative of the courts.”
     “Because these failings are the product of a flawed governance model, it’s the council itself that must be reformed. It must be democratized. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else.”

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