Judicial Council Moves Toward Transparency

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) In the wake of “a crescendo of criticism” and allegations of insularity and secretiveness, California’s top policy-making body for the courts has opened up key meetings and lengthened public comment times.
     “I’m hoping people will come to us and say ‘there’s something we’re concerned about and we want you to look into it,” said Appellate Justice Douglas Miller, head of the council’s Executive and Planning Committee that made the decision announced Tuesday. “I think it is going to increase the transparency and the accountability of the council and it will increase our involvement with the trial courts.”
     The new procedure follows the release of comments from the California Judges Association and several trial courts, many of which were highly critical of the council and its oversight of the staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     In their responses to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s call for suggestions on improving branch governance, many urged the council to be more transparent in its dealings and more open to dissent. “There were suggestions we’ve looked at and considered,” said Miller. “These have been discussions we’ve had even before the survey was sent out.”
     The council has traditionally allotted a brief amount of time for visiting judges and members of the public to speak on judicial branch issues, but requires written statements to be submitted to the Executive and Planning Committee beforehand. Miller said the new public commenting procedure allows non-council members to speak on any issue related to the administration of the judicial branch before the meeting, and on any agenda item on which the council is expected to vote.
     While those wanting to speak will still be required to submit written comments prior to the meeting, Miller said, “If they come the morning of the meeting, then they need to talk to staff and tell us and we’ll have to make a decision. One of the reasons we’re hoping people will give us 24 or 48 hours is so we can apportion all the people who come in.”
     To handle the potential flood of speakers, Miller said his committee is considering extending the council’s meetings over two days, and possibly increasing the number of meetings throughout the year.
     The council’s “educational” meetings, generally held the day before the council’s business meeting, will also be open to the public starting August 25, when presiding judges and court executive officers will meet to discuss how their courts are dealing with budget cuts.
     Miller said his committee is also looking at opening meetings of its internal committees and advisory groups, which often make recommendations that are adopted by the council. A closed meeting of the Accountability and Efficiency Committee last year resulted in a 3.5 percent retroactive pay raise for the majority of the AOC’s staff. This year, the Trial Court Budget Working Group held a closed session to hash out the Legislature’s $350 million cut to the judiciary’s budget.
     “The chief has asked us to look at everything,” Miller said. “Those are all part of the mix.”
     Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Dukes, who co-authored a report with several colleagues chronicling his court’s frustrations with the council and the AOC said he found the new procedure refreshing. But, he said, “They still have far to go.”
     “I think it’s welcomed, it’s refreshing. It’s a small step but it’s clearly a step in the right direction,” said Dukes. “As for the extended public comments, is there reason to believe that they will then listen?”
     “Sometimes it’s hard to ignore a crescendo of criticism,” he added. “As impervious as they seem to be sometimes to accepting or acknowledging the appropriateness of any of the criticism, it looks like maybe some of it is getting to them.”
      For the California Newspaper Publishers Association, general counsel Jim Ewert said, “I think it’s a good change in policy, especially in light of the idea that the courts aren’t subject to any open meeting laws.”
     “I’m cautiously optimistic at the same time because they are regulating themselves,” said Ewert. “The jury is still out with respect to how effective that is but nonetheless, I think any attempt to provide better public access to the decision-making process and allow the public to comment is a good thing.”

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