SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Appellate Justice Richard Huffman said he is leaving his longtime position on the governing body of California’s judicial branch. His resignation is another in a series of departures by powerful members of the state’s judicial administration after new Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye promised a top to bottom review.
“Your rumor is correct. I have resigned from the Judicial Council effective June 30, 2011,” said Huffman in a statement to Courthouse News. “In the meantime I remain the chair of the Executive and Planning Committee.”
The committee is the most powerful body within the administration of California’s court system, handling disputes over money and policy as well as making recommendations for membership on the council as a whole.
Huffman’s departure follows the resignation of Bill Vickrey, as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, along with Sheila Calabro who for years was in charge of a controversial IT project that has drained hundreds of millions from the court’s coffers and Ken Kann who was in charge of the agency’s public image, which has been battered in recent months.
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview last month that she intended a full review of the administrative operations. “There needs to be a top to bottom evaluation of the AOC,” said the chief. “I want to get to the heart of whether the AOC is bloated.”
She said she has put together a group of retired judges to evaluate the agency and see whether it has grown too big and where it can be improved, adding, “The AOC doesn’t need to do all the things it does, it seems to me.”
In a statement Wednesday, the chief justice said she would miss Huffman’s sound advice.
“Justice Huffman has served on the Judicial Council with wisdom, grace, and good humor for the past 14 years,” said the chief justice. “He has made many valuable contributions to the administration of justice as a member of the council.”
“I shall miss his wise counsel,” she added.
Justice Huffman was strongly tied to the former chief justice, Ronald George, and the rising size and power of the Administrative Office of the Courts which works under the direction of the Judicial Council. At council meetings, Huffman generally sat at George’s right hand and, with a strong and articulate voice, commanded deference from other council members.
Vickrey, the AOC director who announced his resignation last week, generally sat at George’s left hand.
In a recent exchange played out in the San Diego Union Tribune’s opinion pages, Huffman defended the decade-long campaign by administrators taking over rule-making power and the power of the purse in the operation of California’s far-flung trial courts.
News of Huffman’s departure was presaged in an announcement sent to judges throughout the state by the administrative office Tuesday, soliciting applications for an appellate justice position on the Judicial Council. According to the California Constitution, only three appellate justices are allowed to sit on the council and one, Justice Douglas Miller from Riverside, was only recently appointed by the new chief justice to fill her own vacated position.
The third position is taken by Justice Harry Hull from Sacramento.
Huffman from San Diego has been on the Judicial Council for 14 years. He has been an appellate justice since 1988, following a three-year stint as a trial court judge. Before going on the bench, Huffman worked as chief deputy attorney in San Diego for ten years.
During his time on the Judicial Council, Huffman articulated and advocated for unification of the court’s rules and finances. Last month, in his letter to the Tribune, he blasted the supporters of AB 1208, a bill intended to return the judicial purse strings to presiding judges in local trial courts.
Huffman wrote that passage of the bill would cause the judicial branch to “return to the days of separate judicial fiefdoms and less judicial accountability.”
One of the critics of the old order, San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston Maino, said the train of departures from the administrative hierarchy is likely to and should continue.
“Our new Chief Justice has made it clear that she wants her own people to assist her,” he said. “Justice Huffman is to be congratulated for resigning so as to allow her to put her own people into positions of authority.”
The point is a subtle counter to the opponents of the Trial Court Rights Act, AB 1208, who argue that the bill interferes with the new chief justice’s ability to lead the judiciary in precarious financial times.
“I should hope that every member of the Judicial Council who was appointed by the former Chief Justice would follow the lead of Justice Huffman and submit their resignations,” said Maino. “Our new Chief Justice deserves to be given a chance to make her own way.”