(CN) – Days before a voting deadline for a controversial court reform bill in California, judges and attorneys are putting heavy pressure on lawmakers in a final push for control of the purse strings.
On one side are the labor unions, trial judges fed-up with the central bureaucracy of the courts and legislators who share their frustration. On the other are many presiding judges, court bureaucrats and bar groups, whose reasons for opposing AB 1208 are as varied as the factions themselves.
Even California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is not above the political fray, lobbying legislators against a bill she believes will strip away her power as leader of the judiciary.
The legislative bill, AB 1208, would send 100% of the money allocated by the Legislature for trial court operations to the trial courts, and it would take power over that purse away from the central governing council and the nearly 1,000-strong bureaucracy that sit atop the court system in California.
It would also put in place a procedure designed to control big projects taken on by the bureaucracy, a provision aimed squarely at an IT system that is projected to cost nearly $2 billion, is installed in just a few counties, and has been blasted by the state’s biggest courts.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, has not taken on a position on the bill, but his spokesman suggested he is leaning in favor.
“We’re aware that it’s an issue that’s generating intense discussion,” said spokesman John Vigna. “He has not taken a position yet, but is inclined to support Democratic bills when they come to the floor.”
The author of the bill is Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Montebello) who is expected to bring it to the floor of the Assembly on Monday, with Tuesday as the deadline for an up or down vote. He is supported by labor groups who represent a major force in the Legislature.
“You have the working people opposing the aristocracy,” said Calderon, unabashedly playing the class warfare card.
The bill, he said, is all about financial accountability, which the massive central bureaucracy of the courts is often accused of lacking.
Calderon noted that bureaucrats in the court administrative office were caught misrepresenting figures to the Legislature regarding the cost of the IT project, and now, in a time of severe financial harship, are still pushing ahead with it.
“That system over there is more of a monarchy then a democracy in terms of how it runs,” said Calderon. He credited the chief justice for establishing some transparency in how the judiciary conducts business, but not a whole lot.
“Basically it’s still a monarchy,” he said. “They don’t want scrutiny, but they want public money.”
On the other side of the bill is California’s chief justice.
She is supported by the bureaucracy under her, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and the governing council that she leads, the Judicial Council. In addition, a large majority of presiding judges also side with her, as does the plaintiff bar, another powerful force in the Legislature.
“The bill is based on, in my view, partial information and some lack of information about what’s going on in the branch,” said Cantil-Sakauye at a Judicial Council meeting this week. “But we’re doing our best to educate our fellow jurists and legislators and we’re finding strong support for opposition opposing the legislation as an unnecessary intrusion into judicial branch governance.”
The chief has also spent time visiting lawyer groups, and courts in San Diego and San Mateo, to discuss her position. Rounding out her tour of the state were visits to the editorial boards of newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News and San Diego Union Tribune.
In an interview with the L.A. Times, she described the bill as “a hammer over my head.”
But her position suffered from a unanimous vote taken at the Judicial Council this week, pushing ahead on the IT project, called the Court Case Management System. The computer project and the assembly bill have been inextricably linked throughout the history of the proposed legislation.
In an interview Friday, Assembly Member Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate), said the reason for his support of AB 1208 is the “late, over-budgeted and unfinished computer system.”
Lara is chair of Joint Legislative Audit Committee that heard a scathing report from the State Auditor last year, blasting the court administrative office for its management of the IT project.
“I think the impetus of this has to deal with the CCMS audit and all the discrepancies that were involved in that. At the end of the day, taxpayer money is taxpayer money,” said Lara. “My intent as chair of JLAC is to protect taxpayer money and ensure that it’s not being wasted unnecessarily.”
“The bill restores our courts’ ability to manage their operations and keep their doors open and do what they’re supposed to do,” he added. “It ensures that the money gets to the courtrooms instead of being spent on bureaucratic waste.”
Judges up and down the state have also chimed in on the debate.
Big courts tend to be more independent of the central bureaucracy, and they either support the bill or are staying neutral. Smaller courts are often dependent on the administrative office for money and services, and oppose the bill.
“We feel that it’s going to take us backwards,” said Presiding Judge Ronald Hansen in Merced, an opponent of the bill.
He said Merced Superior is an underfunded court and he worries that the bill would lock in historical funding rates that would prevent the court from receiving additional money in the future.
Presiding Judge Richard Scheuler in Tehama County said historically underfunded courts “have always had to make do with less,” and he argued the bill would “cause destruction to the branch.”
“My concern is the forces that oppose the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts oppose centralization,” he said, “without which small courts could not survive.”
Presiding Judge Paul Beeman in Solano repeated an argument often made after the new chief justice was sworn in early last year.
“The new chief justice has just been at it for a year,” said Beeman. “From my perspective she’s trying as hard as she can to right the ship. This bill cuts the legs out from out under her,” Beeman said. “We are a coequal branch and we get treated like the DMV or some junior college.”
But that argument does not sway Assemblyman Lara.
“I understand that she’s been there a short time. I understand she’s going to need time to put her policies and procedures in place,” said Lara. “But the fact is that the CCMS system is still being moved forward with and with a price tag of $2 billion,” he said, while his constituents are worried about “how to make ends meet.”
While a big majority of the presiding judges in California oppose the bill, many trial judges, from small counties and large, support AB 1208. In a poll last year of the traditional California Judges Association, a narrow majority of judges supported the measure.
“Unregulated discretion has made the AOC a bloated, unresponsive and wasteful bureaucracy,” said a recent report by the Alliance of California Judges, a newer group of judges committed to reforming the way the courts are run in California. “It has led to a situation where the constitutionally independent trial courts feel forced into subservience or obligation to a central administration.”
Judge David Lampe of Kern County, who is an Alliance director, said, “The problem is not simply lack of money, but poor spending priorities by a central bureaucracy.”
The biggest court in the nation, Los Angeles County Superior, has also taken a position strongly in support of AB 1208.
“Financial decisions are being made which are impacting the vast majority of litigants. That’s wrong and undemocratic,” said Los Angeles Judge Robert Dukes in an interview earlier this month. “There’s a feeling among trial court judges now that without this type of legislation, decisions are happening that impact our citizens in a negative way because of goals set by a bureaucracy.”
The voice of labor was expressed in a biting editorial published Friday in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune where a court reporter wrote, “Trial courts around the state are projecting massive layoffs and courtroom closures, including 1,200 jobs lost over the next two years in Los Angeles — at the same time, the AOC’s budget has more than quadrupled since 1997-98.”
While the chances of the bill’s backers were buoyed by this week’s Judicial Council vote on the IT project, Calderon said the timing could not have been worse for the bill’s opponents.
“It raised eyebrows,” Calderon said, who said legislators are still mad about the Auditor’s report last year saying the true cost of the project had been disguised.
“They are a separate branch of government, and we’re not telling them how to rule on cases, how to view or apply precedent or how they should apply justice,” he said. “Every branch of government is accountable for the money that they spend.”
He argued that the chief justice and other judges on the Judicial Council have full calendars and cannot be expected to exert control over an enormous and willful bureaucracy. “Where is the accountability in the expenditure of funds,” the majority leader continued. “And why should judges have any more credibility then any other official?”