SACRAMENTO (CN) – Trial judges told legislators at an Assembly hearing that 200 judges throughout California are writing a “trial court Bill of Rights” to give judges more power over spending money allocated by the Legislature, and retake control from the statewide Administrative Office of the Courts. “The AOC does not govern the trial courts,” said Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe, who spoke on behalf of the Alliance of California Judges.
Lampe said the proposed Bill of Rights will lend balance to a currently unbalanced governance structure, with the AOC imposing its mandates on individual courts. “This governance structure has to be clarified,” Lampe in an inteview after the Wednesday hearing. “There seems to be a gradual push that the AOC governs the judicial branch. That’s just not the law.”
In 1997, the California Legislature asked that the AOC adopt a version of the Trial Court Bill of Rights, but the AOC never did so.
Now the Alliance is attempting to reintroduce the Legislature to its own mandate. Lampe said the proposal has been discussed with members of the Legislature, who so far do not seem to be opposed to it. The proposal has yet to have a champion in the Legislature, however, and did not get introduced as an Assembly bill this year.
The hearing was intended to look into spending issues that have become contentious, what appear to be excessive amounts spent on court maintenance contracts, and the bill for a new computer case management system that has ballooned from $200 million to an estimated $1.3 billion.
Members of the Legislature’s Accountability Committee spent a good part of the day questioning William Vickrey, who directs the AOC, about those expenses.
As the hearing spilled over into the afternoon, Judge Lampe told legislators that the Alliance had drafted a Bill of Rights and will be pressing for its passage in the legislative session that begins in January.
“When the Legislature allocates funds,” he told the committee, headed by Hector De La Torre, D-Los Angeles, “all of that money needs to be given to the trial courts for court operations, not IT projects.”
“There’s no specific fund for that $1.3 billion,” he added. “Right now its court operations money they’re relying on,” pointing to the Trial Court Trust Fund, from which the AOC has already diverted $100 million for the project, allegedly without consent from county superior courts.
The Alliance objected to the requirement that trial courts buy in to the AOC’s plan to create a unified computer system linking courts throughout the state.
At the hearing, AOC Chief Deputy Director Ron Overholt said it was essential that trial courts in all of California’s 58 counties “sign on the dotted line” and give their full consent to collaborate on the project.
“It’s essential that all counties be in on it,” Overholt said. “Courts can say no, but it’s our plan to work with them so they won’t say no.”
Lampe said in an interview afterward that he was disturbed by a statement Overholt made during the hearing when Audra Strickland, R-Riverside, asked what would happen if a presiding judge objected to imposition of the new computer system. Overholt answered by urging the need “for a change in governance.”
“We worry that the AOC may propose the direct opposite of the Trial Court Bill of rights,” Lampe said. “There is supposed to be an AOC. We don’t dispute that, but there should be a decentralized system of trial court management.”
The Bill of Rights will require funds for courthouse maintenance projects be delivered directly to trial courts, as opposed to the current system requiring court officials to filter all maintenance requests through the AOC’s call center, which forwards the problem to one of two contracted maintenance companies.
“Let local courts be responsible. Right now there’s a huge disconnect and we don’t even know what the AOC has spent on our court. We live here, work here, and know what needs to be repaired,” Lampe said.
Allowing local courts to control their own funds would bring more oversight and responsible spending, Lampe said. “Not only are the trial judges directly connected to the needs of their courts, but we also stand for re-election. You can’t get any more accountable than that.
“The bottom line is judicial independence,” Lampe said. “It’s not just about money. It’s that we’re headed toward a centralized bureaucracy and essentially turning the judiciary into a mini-Legislature. Judges are and must remain fully independent so we can properly perform our constitutional function.”