Judicial Council’s Audit Watchdog Vows Better Eye on Court Spending

(CN) – A new Judicial Council committee that will act as a clearinghouse for all audits concerning California’s judiciary held its first meeting Thursday, where it approved an annual plan to ensure that public money is being spent properly.

The council’s advisory Committee on Audits and Financial Accountability replaces its Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency, a holdover from the last year of Chief Justice Ron George’s tenure.

George created the accountability and efficiency committee in 2010, partly in response to growing concern among judges about the scope, size and salaries for the council’s administrative arm, formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts.

He named incoming Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye as its chair, and its first order of business was to approve a 3.5 percent pay hike for administrators in a closed meeting.

At Thursday’s meeting – which was open to the public – the committee’s new chairman, Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, said he hoped the committee will be useful to the state’s courts.

“I’m hoping this committee as it develops its work will be very proactive, not just reactive, but will be in a mode to help courts and staff and the Judicial Council by making good suggestions on things that will be useful for them,” he said. “If we see things in one court that will help other courts we want to make sure we spread the word, not in a bad way, but in a good way. Not in a way of one-upping or criticizing, but providing useful information to the courts.”

While the committee’s agenda included a closed session where it was to consider approving a draft audit of the Placer County Superior Court, Rosenberg decided to make that portion public since there weren’t any sensitive issues to discuss.

“I don’t sense that we have any concerns that would require a closed session,” he said.

The Judicial Council renamed the committee and refocused its priorities in late July.

“Historically, the Judicial Council has not been as diligent as it should be on following up with audit findings,” Judicial Council chief of staff Jody Patel said. “The chief’s thought was we have a budget committee now branch-wide that is going to focus on allocations and everything money related, but we don’t have an entity responsible for the back end of it to make sure that all of the money that is allocated is appropriately utilized.”

State law requires that all trial courts be audited at least once every four years, but the committee also added appellate courts and the state Supreme Court to their list. The committee will also approve the public posting of all judicial branch audit reports.

It will respond to audits by the state controller, state auditor or Department of Finance, three outside agencies that regularly audit court finances and services to make sure they comply with contracting laws.

Audit reports will no longer go to the full Judicial Council, which in the past approved the audits at its business meetings with little or no discussion. But the audit committee can vote to pass the audit reports on to the full council if they anything particularly alarming.

“The hope is there will be more structure and oversight as it relates to fiscal accountability in the branch. That includes every judicial branch entity, including the Judicial Council,” Patel said. “You’re going to hold us accountable.”

And Rosenberg added: “The scope is pretty big but it puts the oversight in one place.”

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