SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a teleconference Friday that she welcomes recently passed legislation sharply restricting the Judicial Council’s ability to spend money on statewide projects such as a failed, half-billion-dollar IT project. However, lobbyists for the council were vigorously fighting against that very provision, according to legislative sources, right up until the final vote.
The chief justice said she endorsed legislation that requires legislative approval before the Judicial Council can spend money from the trial court trust fund on big projects such as the failed IT system. She also said those restrictions will not in any way affect the AOC’s budget and operations.
“In terms of the language on the trial court trust fund, I’m happy for that clarity,” she said. “The judicial council appreciates that clarity. We’re pleased with this language” she said, adding that the new law “dispels rumors” that trust fund money had been used for statewide initiatives.
However, it appears that lobbyists for the governing council of the courts headed by the chief justice did not welcome the language at all, and in fact fought hard against it.
A highly-placed legislative staff member said lobbyists for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the staff arm of the Judicial Council, strongly opposed language included in a budget trailer bill, that changed the government code to restrict its spending power, right up until the Senate floor vote on Tuesday. The lobbyists for the judiciary leaders asked the Department of Finance to remove that language, according to the legislative staff member.
The trailer bill, which is now part of the budget act signed by Governor Jerry Brown, amends the government code to read, “Nothing in this section or any other provision of law shall be construed to authorize the Judicial Council to redirect funds from the Trial Court Trust Fund for any purpose other than for allocation to trial courts or as otherwise specifically appropriated by statute.”
“They didn’t like the portion that restricted their ability to redirect funds from the Trial Court Trust Fund,” said the staff member who asked to speak without attribution. “They wanted that gone and then they wanted that delayed. We ended up delaying that enactment for six months.”
The staffer added that the lobbyists also fought against language prohibiting any further spending from any source on the IT project, called the Court Case Management System, without legislative approval. “They didn’t want CCMS funding to end, they asked that that language be removed. They did not want that language restricting it,” the staff member said.
The enacted budget language has been lauded as a victory for judicial reformers, who have been trying through legislative action to ensure full funding for the trial courts, while limiting the amount of funds that can been siphoned from the courts for projects like CCMS. Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Industry) said Tuesday that reforms contained in AB 1208, which was staunchly opposed by the chief justice and Judicial Council, were largely enacted through the budget trailer bill’s language.
Michelle Castro, chief lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, said the new legislation actually goes further than AB 1208 in a number of areas.
“The changes enacted in the trailer bill were more significant than even some of the provisions of 1208,” said Castro. “They went a little further by having legislative counsel search all of the government codes to make sure they weren’t going to leave anything out. It was an incredible effort.”
During Friday’s teleconference with reporters, Cantil-Sakauye said she did not find similarities between AB 1208 and the new law. “I would disagree with the premise that it contains similarity,” she said.
What she deeply opposed, said Cantil-Sakauye, were the big funding cuts imposed on the judiciary by the current budget. The cumulative effect of the cuts has been enormous, amounting over the last three budgets to $650 million taken out of a roughly $4 billion budget.
The cuts have led to layoffs, actual or scheduled, of hundreds of court workers in trial courts up and down California. At the same time, court operations have been curtailed and some courtrooms are being closed.
In that context, the IT project, that wound up costing some $500 million, is a particularly sore point among trial court judges.
Nevertheless, in the chaotic horse trading that accompanies passage of a massive budget such as California’s, the lobbyists for the Judicial Council continued to seek millions of dollars to spend on the now-terminated project.
“There was actually a request to spend $5.1 million additional money for CCMS,” said the highly placed legislative staffer. “My understanding is for CCMS staff they used to have 51 employees. They’d laid off 48 of them and have three employees left. Those three employees are trying to do a report for the chief justice and probably the Judicial Council, to say we stopped CCMS, here are some ways you can use it. During the budget negotiations, their cost for this salvage effort was $5 million. The Legislature said why would we spend $5 million on figuring out what to do.”
The staffer commended interim AOC Director Jody Patel for later calling to say the AOC could probably retain the employees for one month for $30,000 to finish the report. “Part of the stress between the Legislature and the judicial branch has been these half-truths,” said the staffer. “The devil is in the details. She’s trying to change that culture.”
While no funding has yet been approved, the chief justice said Friday, “We are still trying to figure out how we can go forward with winding it down and parting it out. The budget does say no further funding can be spent on CCMS. We would of course abide by that. We do want to see if we can use limited funds to wind down and use parts of a $550 million system that actually worked. We’d love to see what we can give the courts from a $550 million system.”
She added, “It’s not phoenix rising, it’s trying to use its parts. We’ll be very transparent and open about it as we’ve always tried to be.”