Legislative Action Continued

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     The Los Angeles Superior Court has announced the termination of 350 additional employees, and the closure of 56 courtrooms. This level of reduction and much more will soon become commonplace for every court.
     The Alliance didn’t simply complain, but came to the table with solutions. One was AB1208, a modest rewriting of the budget statutes to protect trial court operating funds while preserving the ability of the Council and AOC to ensure uniform statewide rules and policies and to undertake statewide projects with the consent of the Legislature or the courts.
     Rather than embrace AB 1208, our leaders wasted political capital fighting the bill and they insulted members of the Assembly after it was passed by that body, accusing the Assembly Speaker of acting in bad faith and accusing the bill’s proponents in that body of using lies about the AOC to obtain passage.
     These things were not said in private, in a moment of anger, but in a video posted on YouTube, prompting numerous headlines such as, “Chief Calls Out Legislature,” and “Chief Justice Slams Assembly Over Court Bill.”
     AB 1208 would have prevented much of the waste that we have seen over the years, had it been law. How would the law have changed the outcome? By way of example, the Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest court in the world, receives approximately 28% of state operation funding.
     This means that Los Angeles, a court that was never in favor of CCMS, would have as much as $140 million in additional reserves, enough to avoid a huge portion of its devastating service cuts. Before allowing their budgeted money to be spent on a project like CCMS, courts will be able to ask, “How much is this going to cost?” Courts were never given the option of opting out of the project. Under AB 1208, they could have.
     The bill, having passed the Assembly, now awaits action by the Senate. The legislature needs to pass the bill.
     What else can be done? We believe that the Legislature needs to conduct a full investigation into whether over $500 million of the public’s money spent on CCMS was properly appropriated and whether all or part of that money is recoverable under the law.
     Current law requires that before trial court operating funds are spent on statewide IT projects, the consent of the participating courts must be obtained, a point we likewise made in writing on more than one occasion to the Council and AOC. Let’s see if it was.
     On the eve of what will be more devastating cuts — cuts so severe that our leaders have already proclaimed that we are in a “constitutional crisis” and that any additional cuts will leave us with a “shell of a judicial system” — we note that the Judicial Council met on May 7 in a hastily-called emergency meeting. Judges and the public were not allowed to attend.
     According to an advisory member of the Council who was quoted in the press immediately after the meeting, no plan exists and no decisions have been made to deal with the upcoming cuts.
     Well, the Alliance has a plan, based upon the realization that someone must save our courts, and it must be the state’s judges. We understand there is no money forthcoming from the Legislature. We also understand that the AOC still maintains and operates a full-fledged “faux-news” studio, complete with cameras to film the puff pieces it regularly disseminates to judges and others.
     We note that the AOC has over 100 attorneys on staff, at least some of whom are allowed to telecommute to work — one, we have learned, from Switzerland. We note that the AOC, which rarely if ever sends lawyers to court, prefers to contract for outside counsel.
     We note that the AOC still employs a well paid “scholar in residence” (who resides in Virginia) and, since 2006, a “Judge in Residence.” We note that the education division is still running at full strength with over 100 employees, and that 21 council members are flown into San Francisco for council meetings, and their room and board is an additional expense.
     We understand that the AOC still pays the National Center for State Courts an annual fee — well over $800,000 so far this year. As of last week, the 30 highest paid AOC executives were still contributing nothing toward their retirement.
     AB 1208 must become law. The recovery of CCMS expenditures must be investigated. The Legislature must make a direct allocation of available funds to the trial and appellate courts so that the AOC is reduced only to functions mandated by law and to services which trial courts are willing to purchase from their own budgets.
     There is a place for the basic functions of the AOC, but the Legislature must directly cut the AOC’s budget allocation very substantially and redirect the money to the courts themselves. The AOC legal department, education department, public relations and government affairs department, IT department, as well as its executive program, need to be substantially eliminated.
     Regional offices need to be closed. Since construction funds have been swept, the AOC construction division needs to be eliminated accordingly.
     If action is not taken soon, more and more courts will go under as the bureaucracy digs in to protect itself. The Judicial Council has failed to place the needs of the trial courts above those of the centralized bureaucracy. There is no more time for committee reports and rallies, for studies and vague promises from appointed leaders who have proven themselves unequal to the task. The time to act is now.
     (David R. Lampe is a Judge of the Kern County Superior Court and a Founding Director of the Alliance of California Judges)

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