SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A Los Angeles trial judge confronted a top administrator at Friday’s Judicial Council meeting over a fundamental issue in the battle over control of California’s courts where bureaucrats have increasingly seen themselves as the equals if not the employers of the judges. “The priority should be to keep the courthouse doors open,” said Los Angeles Judge Burt Pines.
As was widely expected, an IT project that has been pushed by the bureaucrats, and that is now in deep trouble, also took a drubbing.
“Don’t force the rest of us to abandon basic access to justice in favor of feeding this technology beast with trial court trust funds,” said San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein, who last week announced drastic layoffs for the court.
“Your AOC staff has overseen the expenditure of at least $400 million on the still-dysfunctional Court Case Management System,” said Feinstein, the daughter of California’s senior U.S. senator. “Despite these huge expenditures, CCMS is not fully operational in a single county.”
The cuts to San Francisco which should cause the closure of 25 courtrooms are part of a statewide funding crisis for the courts, resulting from Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget passed by the Legislature last month. Friday’s emergency meeting of California’s Judicial Council was called over the portion of the budget that cut $350 million from the courts.
In a closed meeting last week, judges and court clerks recommended staggered cuts this year, with more pain doled out to the administrative agency and a little less for the trial courts. The meeting’s judges and court clerks recommended a 12 percent cut for the bureaucracy, 9.7 percent cut for the appellate courts and 6.8 percent for the trial courts.
That recommendation was adopted unanimously by the council.
The fireworks came over next year’s cuts, which are expected to be worse. Last week’s closed meeting resulted in a recommendation of across-the-board cuts of 15.2 percent for next year, applied equally to the bureaucracy and the trial courts.
Judge Pines took issue with that recommendation, arguing that the central, 1,000-member corps of administrators could take a much bigger slice out of its funds.
Pines had an ally in fellow Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Wesley. Both are voting members of the council, which has 21 voting members, including the chief justice.
Wesley moved to consider cutting more from the administrative office, saying he does not think the AOC has the same priority as the courts.
“The AOC is not an adjudicative agency,” Wesley said. “The council should explicitly recognize that additional reductions to the AOC may be made and not limit it to 15.2 percent.”
Pines argued that the trial courts, as the place where justice is supposed to take place, should be considered the top funding priority. Addressing the deputy director of the administrative office, Ron Overholt, the judge asked, “We are asked to make a policy decision that all these entities should share the reduction with the same percentage. The AOC, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, in a sense are viewed as of equal importance. Is that implicit?”
“You can see it’s not equally spread,” Overholt replied, referring to the current budget cuts.
Pines said he was talking about next year, to which Overholt said, “I think it’s fair that we will deal with the budget crisis as a branch.”
Pines rejected that position, asking his colleagues on the council to “set some priorities.”
“An issue is whether this reduction in our budget should be absorbed by each of these agencies in the same percentage,” said the judge. “I have some questions about that. I’ve heard the chief say our priority should be to keep the courthouse doors open. I don’t agree that means the reduction should be shared by the same percentage with these agencies.”
The motion asked that the council “Adopt any reduction to the AOC today as a minimum and that additional reductions be possible this year and next year.”
Wesley said he looked forward to a report from the Chief Justice’s Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group she tasked earlier this year with “conducting a top to bottom evaluation” of the bureaucracy. “That means that if the SEC comes back with the report this year and the council feels additional cuts could be made to the AOC that they should be made this year or next year,” he said.
Judge Erica Yew from Santa Clara County took an opposing view and attacked the salaries of her fellow judges.
She also defended the bureaucrats, saying the AOC is “a group of well intentioned, well-run and well-led people.”
“There is one group that is not taking any cuts,” added Yew, also a voting member of the council. “In the past when we had the furloughs, courts allowed their judges to voluntarily waive their salaries and I wonder if we’d look at a program that allows bench officers to waive salaries to really spread the sacrifice to everyone in the courts.”
Kim Turner, the head court clerk in Marin County, chimed in.
“Small and medium sized courts rely very heavily on the AOC,” said Turner who is an advisory member of the council. She said trial court operations and court administration are “inextricably linked” and “to identify the administrative services of the AOC as somehow different than trial court operations, I think is a bit of a problem.”
San Diego’s head clerk Mike Roddy echoed that contention “There are things the AOC does that benefit the branch that most of us never see,” said Roddy, a longtime AOC insider.
In order to walk the council through the budget figures, the administrative office called back its former finance director Stephen Nash from his duties as San Bernardino Superior Court’s new head clerk. Nash appeared detached from the discussion, and presented the numbers clinically. After Nash finished his presentation, Overholt had to repeatedly call his name to answer a council member’s question.
“Tell him you don’t work for him anymore!” one judge shouted over to Nash, eliciting laughter from around the council table.
Wesley’s motion requiring that the administrative office take a bigger hit in next year’s cuts was voted down 16-3, with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye voting against.
The council then decided to delay any action on the recommended 15.2 percent funding cut for next year, a decision that AOC critics considered a victory because it leaves open the possibility for pushing for more cuts within the agency.
“We don’t know what the state’s fiscal situation will be next year,” said a retired judge from Los Angeles, Terry Friedman, who is on the council to give advice. “The prospect for anticipating the predicament we’ll be in next year are very limited. Prudence dictates us hesitating before we go forward.”
In a video produced by California Courts News, an information bureau funded by the AOC, Friedman also praises the controversial IT system pushed by the central administrators, even though it is used in only one small claims court in Los Angeles and was roundly rejected by the court’s leaders in answer to survey questions sent by the chief justice.
“This system gives us the opportunity to provide greater service to the public,” said Friedman in that tape. A decision to halt funding, he says, would be looked back on “as one of the most mistaken decisions that could have possibly been made.”
IT Project On Hold
At Friday’s meeting, the council accepted a budget-committee recommendation to delay installing the IT system by one year for a savings of $56 million, a decision that was hotly debated.
The latest version of the software appears to be dead. But, at the council meeting, Appellate Justice Terence Bruiniers extolled the project’s value and lamented any delay. Even though the project has been decried throughout the state as a money and time-wasting boondoggle, Bruiniers maintained that it would save money.
“If we abandon CCMS we will find ourselves in a far worse position than we were ten years ago,” he said. Repeating a claim often made by administrators, and contradicted by the court personnel that work directly with the system, he added, “CCMS works.”
Pines was on the other side of the discussion.
“I don’t see in the foreseeable future for the Legislature or the courts to fund something that could cost as much as $1.9 billion,” Pines countered.
Assistant Presiding Judge Laurie Earl, whose Sacramento court is intimately familiar with the controversial software, contested the argument that it could save money, “CCMS has been a financial drain on our branch. It is time to stop the bleeding. We can no longer afford to have CCMS highjack our budget.”
Underscoring the dire financial situation of the trial courts were impassioned speeches from trial judges who were given five minutes to address the council at the opening of the meeting as “members of the public.”
Kern County’s Judge David Lampe spoke on behalf of the Alliance of California Judges, a group that has been challenging the administrators over a longterm campaign to take down the power of the elected judges and elevate the power of the civil servants who administer the courts.
Referring to the staff of the central administrative office, Lampe said, “You cannot fairly ask staff to decide upon the only option. We are the judges, you are the leaders, so you decide the number and tell staff to get to that number.”
“We need to marshal the courage to return to our core humility, which is deciding the cases for the citizens of our community.”
One of the most ardent addresses came from Judge Feinstein, who reminded the council of her decision to lay off 200 employees and close 25 courtroms in San Francisco.
Feinstein said that while she was grateful to the many justices and judges who called her from around the state offering help and consolation, she was “stunned that neither I, nor our court executive officer, received a single phone call from anyone in the Administrative Office of the Courts the entity that is supposed to provide services and support to the trial courts.”
“San Francisco may have been the first trial court to fall,” she added, “but I know that others are soon to follow, and you know that too. Perhaps the AOC, as your staff agency, will offer them some help and support.”
Feinstein urged the council to put court services ahead of the central bureaucracy. “In 1998, the AOC had 268 employees. Since 1998, that number has grown. While every trial court in the state has been tightening its belt, the AOC has been loosening its own.”
California Judges Association
While there had been some controversy earlier in the week over whether the California Judges Association would take an official stance before the Judicial Council on the budget, its president Judge Keith Davis spoke on behalf of the CJA in support of trial court funding.
Earlier this week, the CJA’s executive board expressed concern over Davis’ earlier statements to the press that seemed to indicate the CJA felt the AOC was being unfairly targeted for budget cuts. Davis met with executive officers Thursday, and at Friday’s meeting said the CJA would stick by an official statement made July 13 to the Judicial Council’s budget committee.
“The business of this branch is making certain that California citizens have courts from which they can get justice. No one wants our branch to be part-time,” Davis said.
He said the CJA urged the Judicial Council to make “minimal, if any monetary cuts” to the state’s courts and “those parts of the branch concerned with management and administration should receive the brunt of the budget shortfall.”
He also said the CJA recommended the council reject the 15.2 percent across-the-board budget reduction for next year and restore full funding to all trial courts this year. “This would come from resources available to the Judicial Council by further cuts to the administrative costs, including the AOC,” Davis said.
New Buildings Versus Trials
In one of its votes on Friday, the Judicial Council also approved $63 million in one-time funding transfers from construction funds to the trial courts, after rejecting a motion from Judge Wesley to transfer more money.
“Are we here today to say these projects are more important than keeping the courts open? We have one last chance to lead. We can do it today,” Wesley said. He contended that building projects didn’t have to stop entirely, but some additional transfers from court construction funds would bolster trial court budgets.
San Diego’s clerk Roddy, where the court is slated to get a brand new courthouse, said he preferred to cut trial court operating funds rather rather than stop building projects.
His argument appeared to support the closure of courtrooms as a way to send a message to the Legislature. He argued that if the motion by Judge Wesley were adopted, then the Legislature would simply take more.
“We’ll leave no message except that we were able to keep the courtrooms open in order to have the Legislature take more money from us,” said Roddy. “I can take the 6.8 percent cut. I don’t like it, but I can take it.”
San Diego’s presiding judge, Kevin Enright, is also an advisory member on the council and has been a strong defender of administrative office policies. But Roddy did all the talking for the court at Friday’s council meeting.
Separately, the San Diego court awarded $1,000-dollar bonuses, which were called “stipends,” to most of the court employees about two weeks ago, said court employees. At the same time, they were also told that hiring is frozen and those who retire will not be replaced.
The the council meeting, Judge Wesley recalled the pink slips and delayed justice in San Francisco’s court and said, “There is still $82 million we can use for the trial courts,” he said. “They need the money, except for San Diego, apparently.”
Pines agreed. “Are we going to walk out of this meeting and allow 25 courtrooms in San Francisco to remain closed? And what about the other courts? What the motion addresses is trying to keep the courthouses open,” said Pines.
“You can vote against this motion and tell San Francisco, ‘Sorry, there’s no money.’ Or you can say, ‘It’s more important to have CCMS or these courthouses planned and underway than keeping their doors open.’ I much prefer one more judge and more staff in my building than anything else.”
The council defeated their motion on a 15-2 vote, and then voted to adopt the the recommendation of the budget committee to take $63 million from construction funds.