The May Revise of the Governor’s budget has now been released. The California judicial system now faces overwhelming cuts that are shocking to many.
In addition to a permanent $350 million reduction originally proposed in January (part of an ongoing $653 million reduction since 2008), the new proposal provides for an additional reduction of $540 million, mitigated by a transfer of $290 million of construction funds.
Thus, the May revision calls for a net $250 million further reduction to the trial courts. In the face of this fiscal nightmare, all must recognize that the courts cannot continue to operate under the system of wasteful “imperial” centralized governance that has been the norm over the last 15 years.
In that time, the judiciary has lost sight of its core mission — the adjudication of disputes, which is a local function. The time has come to reduce the Administrative Office of the Courts to its minimum core statutory functions and to send the resulting savings to the trial courts. It is time for “constructive decentralization.”
A little over two years ago, Chief Justice Ron George retired, proclaiming that he could “leave in good conscience” because of the financial health and stability of the judiciary. California Department of Finance Director Ana Matosantos said Monday that the fundamental reorganization of the court structure carried out under former chief justice Ron George had exacerbated the financial difficulty for the courts.
The Alliance of California Judges, formed on September 11, 2009, has repeatedly warned — in letters to the current Chief, in editorials, in countless member communications, and in written and oral presentations to the Judicial Council — that the state’s finances were such that draconian cuts to our branch were not just a possibility, but were inevitable. Our unhappy predictions apparently fell on deaf ears.
Governor Jerry Brown campaigned on a promise to cut unnecessary programs, including within the judiciary. The Alliance took him at his word, and continued to press for an end to wasteful spending and for programmatic changes that would allow the core functions of the judiciary to be preserved when the cuts came. Business as usual would lead us to ruin.
The Alliance implored the Judicial Council to stop spending money on the Court Case Management System. Instead, even as trial courts were closing, the Council voted repeatedly, with only one or two dissenting votes, to continue pouring hundreds of millions into that now failed IT project. That money came primarily from trial court funds.
Over the life of the project, over half a billion was wasted by judicial “leaders,” with nothing to show for it but another wasted $8 million recently authorized by the Council in an attempt to salvage anything of value from the ashes of the project.
Not only the Alliance saw this coming — the state auditor excoriated the project in February of 2011. Documentation supporting key decisions on scope and direction was absent. The AOC failed to structure the development vendor’s contract to control costs and repeatedly failed to provide the legislature — not to mention the state’s judges — with accurate cost estimates. In 2004, the project was estimated at $260 million. By 2010, the projected cost had risen to $1.9 billion.
In July of 2011 the Alliance appeared before the Council to ask that the latest round of cuts to the courts be fully mitigated by drastic reductions in the AOC budget. The council had available to it $81 million in allocation authority granted by the Legislature.
Again, but for one lone vote, the Alliance proposal was voted down, while money continued to pour into CCMS. This occurred in the same month that the San Francisco Superior Court was forced to lay off a portion of its staff.
The Alliance asked that construction projects be reasonable, not two to three times the national average. We asked that money set aside for construction and major renovations not be spent on small projects disguised as large ones — routine maintenance and light bulb changes bundled and falsely portrayed as renovations.
We asked that the AOC be downsized. As of today, the report of a strategic evaluation committee, promised months ago, is still not completed and the head of the committee has stepped down.
Rather than face the reality that no money would be forthcoming from the legislature, and making necessary cuts to our bloated statewide bureaucracy, our leaders organized street protests calling for a restoration of money. Round after round of resignations occurred at the AOC, but the programs continued in force. Continued
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)