State Auditor Finds Temp Judge Program Reboot OK

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

(CN) – The state auditor in a report released Tuesday found that the Judicial Council of California had inefficiently run a program for temporary judges. However, the auditor was satisfied with an overhaul initiated by the state’s chief justice.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said her office launched an investigation of the Judicial Council after receiving a 2017 complaint that courts with “surpluses of judges” were overusing the program.

“The Judicial Council of California inefficiently administered the Assigned Judges Program (AJP) because it did not verify that superior courts requesting retired judges from the AJP attempted first to fill their needs either internally or reciprocally with other superior courts, as the Judicial Council’s policy requires,” Howle said.

“In fact, the AJP spent nearly $7 million of its $27 million budget in 2016 to provide judges to the five counties that had the highest number of surplus judges.”

Howle’s office interviewed Judicial Council staff and learned the program had no way of verifying that courts requesting judges from the program had first tried to use judges from their own court or other courts. 

“Program staff consistently reported that they did not even question the courts’ requests but simply attempted to fill them as best they could. As a result, the chief justice approved the assignment of retired judges and the expenditure of state funds without sufficient supporting documentation that these represented the best use of AJP resources,” the audit says.

During her investigation, Howle learned California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye had already ordered council staff to do its own review of the program. This led to a swath of changes that upset both courts and retired judges in the program. The changes imposed a 1,320-day retroactive cap on the number of days a retired judge can work, the equivalent of a six-year term of an elected judge. After those 1,320 days are up, a retired judge is no longer eligible for assignment.

Howle also notes the council restructured the program’s funding “so that it assigns resources within the AJP based on the greatest need, as defined by its judicial needs assessment.”

The state auditor seemed satisfied with the overhaul, but suggested the council reassess the program again by the end of June, paying particular attention to its allocation of judges and assigned judges program funding to courts with “surplus judges.”

“The state auditor’s review reinforces our own earlier review of the Assigned Judges Program, which resulted in the announcement of various program changes last spring,” said Martin Hoshino, director of the Judicial Council staff, in a statement. “We agree with the auditor’s recommendations, particularly the recommendation to review the trial courts’ compliance with the recent program changes. The presiding judges in each of our state’s 58 superior courts are key partners in the program and we will be following up with them, as the auditor recommends.”

The audit was part of a larger investigation by Howle’s office of improper management of state resources and misuse of time by government agencies and employees.

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