Judiciary’s Top Lawyer to Retire|as Council Votes on Office Overhaul

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The top lawyer for California’s courts will retire at the end of the year with the Judicial Council set to vote Friday on an overhaul of her office. The tenure of Mary Roberts was rocked by a reform committee’s conclusion that her office had strayed from a service oriented operation to become a bloated, policy-influencing gatekeeper that allowed too many of its lawyers to work from home.
     The Judicial Council is set to vote Friday on a number of controversial issues, including rules for e-filing, the manner in which the head of the presiding judges committee is chosen, and a set of recommendations on how the legal services office “should be restructured.”
     The recommended reorganization of the legal services office would break it into three sections, legal opinions, business operations and labor and litigation.
     The management hierarchy of the office would be simplified and reduced by appointing three managing attorneys for each of the three separate sections, called “areas of service” in the recommendations.
     The changes are being proposed by Justice Douglas Miller who heads the powerful executive committee of the rule-making Judicial Council and Edith Matthai, a member of the council who is with Robie & Matthai in Los Angeles and specializes in legal malpractice defense and also represents judges in disciplinary matters.
     News of Robert’s decision to retire at the end of this year was confimed by the administrative office on Thursday, just ahead of Friday’s Judicial Council meeting.
     A specialist in labor and employment law, Roberts joined the Administrative Office of the Courts in 2001, when 57 of California’s 58 trial courts became unionized during the move from county to state trial court funding.
     “Even when we’ve had disagreements it has always been respectful,” said Miller, who worked extensively with Roberts over the two years. “I’ve appreciated her service to the judicial branch and especially the value she provides in the judicial opinions they are called to do on a regular basis.”
     But her tenure also brought criticism from many trial judges who saw her as the agent of the administrative office.
     After her appointment, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye in 2011 formed the 14-judge Strategic Evaluation Committee to recommend reforms of the administrative office, including the of the legal office, then called Office of the General Counsel, headed by Roberts.
     In its report on the office, published last year, the committee recommended cutting back on the roughly 75 positions in that office that included more than 50 lawyers. “The sheer number of attorneys in the AOC is eye-catching,” said the report.
     The report also found that two attorneys were telecommuting from out of state and one working from Switzerland in violation of administrative office policy. There was also criticism over the hiring of more attorneys for her office during a hiring-freeze.
     The report also faulted Roberts’ office for failing to implement reforms recommended by a consultant five years earlier and concluded that, “It is appropriate to question the effectiveness of the management of Office of the General Council and its level of commitment to providing timely service to the courts.”
     But the most fundamental criticism was that the office had placed the interests of the administrative office over the interest of California’s local trial courts.
     “Multiple courts express concern that advice given by Office of the General Counsel is political or result-oriented in the sense that it may be colored by placing the AOC’s interests ahead of the specific interests of the trial court,” said the report. “For this reason, and because of other issues discussed in this section, many courts simply lack trust or confidence in OGC.”
     Along those lines, the committee also criticized Roberts’ perception of herself as a “‘gatekeeper’ for matters that are put before the Judicial Council and that the General Counsel has inserted herself into the policy making functions of the Judicial Council, as opposed to the more appropriate role of providing legal services and advice.”
     The committee recommended redefining the office’s role and suggested a name change to the less-lofty sounding Office of Legal Services.
     “It appears that the respective roles of the Judicial Council, as policy makers, and the role of the General Counsel, as legal adviser, have become blurred,” its report said. “From a historical perspective, as an office that was once shown in AOC organization charts as the Office of Legal Services has been elevated in status, becoming the Office of General Counsel. All of these developments point to the need for redefining the proper role of the AOC’s top legal adviser in the organization, recognizing the primacy of the Judicial Council in determining the goals and objectives to be carried out by the AOC.”
     A year after the report’s release, the Judicial Council is gearing up for an overhaul of the office. The name change has already taken place, attorney positions have been reduced and the out-of-state and country telecommuting has been axed.
     In reviewing Robert’s tenure as the courts’ top legal adviser, executive committee head Miller said the development of the judicial branch contracting manual was one of her office’s most important accomplishments.
     Adopted by the Judicial Council in August 2011, its intent is to bring the judiciary in line with California’s public contract code when procuring goods and services, a requirement that became law in March 2011.
     “It’s complicated, lengthy and very difficult,” said Miller. “Her office made it more understandable and provided a framework for both the Judicial Council and the courts to deal with all the ramifications of that.”
     Miller noted several notable projects Roberts has spearheaded, beginning with the organization of the legal opinions unit, which provides opinions to trial and appellate courts on legal matters.
     “She was instrumental in organizing the litigation management unit so it could respond to lawsuits when that became a statewide responsibility,” said Miller. “She did a great job marshaling those forces and successfully defending the trial courts.”
     Roberts was unavailable for comment, but her intention to leave the AOC was announced to the Council and staff by AOC Director Steve Jahr via email.
     “I appreciate Mary’s contributions to the Judicial Council, the AOC, and the courts during her more than 12-year tenure with the branch. As Chief Counsel, she has overseen the provision of a range of first-class legal programs and services to improve the statewide administration of justice and benefit the public we serve,” Jahr said. Jahr was also unavailable for further comment.
     He noted that Roberts plans to “engage in international human rights/democracy work, especially in Burma (Myanmar) where she has family-a truly noble pursuit for the greater good and reflection of Mary’s commitment to making a difference as a lawyer and as an individual.”

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