(CN) California’s legislative analyst has called for the state judiciary to exert more control over local trial courts and in so doing put his hand into a hornet’s nest of controversy, with reactions from the chief justice, trial judges and legislators spanning caution, alarm and fury.
The legislative analyst concluded that individual trial courts are doing a worse job in controlling costs than the central bureaucracy. At the same time, the report also said the central bureaucrats should provide an accounting of what they do because there appears to be redundancy and waste.
“It is absolutely absurd,” said Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), who objected that the report does not consider all the accusations of reckless spending by the central Administrative Office of the Courts. “It is major fecal matter of the bull variety.”
“I think they misunderstand that we are a third branch of government,” said Sacramento’s soon to be presiding Judge Lauri Earl. She said the report reflected naivete about California’s judicial branch..
“We are concerned that the report not be interpreted to put more centralized control of the courts in the hands of the AOC,” said Judge David Lampe of Kern County. “That model has been a failure it puts the goose in charge of feeding the chickens.”
“The Legislative Analyst Office report has appropriately engendered much discussion within the branch,” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, adding that her focus remains on funding for California’s courts.
The report suggested that in keeping with the unifying goals of 1997 Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act, the state should assume more control over trial court employee classification and benefits. Individual courts currently manage their own personnel matters.
“By giving individual courts complete control over all employee-related issues, we find that enacted legislation did not go far enough in providing the state sufficient control and oversight over these significant costs,” says the report. It was issued with little fanfare last week but has been gathering a coat of controversy since then, with a press release from the chief justice on Friday and Calderon’s tirade this week.
“For example,” said the report, “the state and individual trial courts lack complete control over the retirement and health benefits being provided to some court workers, and there are indications that trial courts have not effectively bargained costs in their negotiations with trial court employees.”
The author, Drew Soderborg, said his office did not support bringing the trial courts under a giant umbrella of centralization.
“We don’t envision that the AOC would take a lot of responsibilities from the trial courts,” said the analyst. “There could be instances where it’s found that trial courts should be more responsible.”
Soderborg said the report was self-initiated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office and not requested by the Legislature.
“I’d been working on it off and on over a period of three years,” he said. “When we started looking into it, it had been in place for about 10 years and my director suggested this might be something we want to look into.”
But Calderon did not buy the idea that the report just happened to show up in the midst of a bitter power struggle between local trial courts and the overarching bureaucracy.
The majority leader pointed out that the legislative analyst ignored the state auditor’s withering criticism of the bureaucracy in a report earlier this year that singled out a contoversial 10-year IT project, that is projected to cost $1.9 billion and has already generated more computer code than it takes to run a Boeing 777.
“This report has such blinders on it feels like it was written for LAO by the AOC,” said Calderon. “There’s no professionalism to it. Not in the way it was done or released and not the conclusions derived given the facts as they have unfurled in the past year.”
“This bureaucrat with the LAO apparently called my office at 4 or 5 the night before to say, ‘I just wanted to not blindside the assembly member’,” Calderon continued. “All of it smells, the timing of the report, the secrecy of the report, the process through which the report began and was requisitioned. He goes ‘I just had an interest in this for a while and we just finished up this year.’ In politics I don’t believe in coincidences.”
Soderborg said he is making the basic point that whoever is giving out the money should be in charge of how it is spent.
“It’s important that whatever entity is responsible for paying for the cost should be the one with control of the cost,” Soderborg said. Referring to the trial courts, he added, “We also note there is some indication that salaries have grown at a rapid pace and also there’s generous trial court benefits as well. It does raise questions and indicates it needs more scrutiny.”
When asked about the generous pay and lavish pension benefits given to the nearly 1,000 employees, both salaried and on contract, in the central bureaucracy, Soderborg said his office had noticed the increased salaries but they were outpaced by the trial courts. “The salaries of the folks in the state judiciary which includes the AOC have grown at about half the rate of the trial courts,” he said.
San Francisco Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein, whose court is undergoing wrenching changes because of a funding shortfall, flatly rejected that analsysis.
“The AOC salaries and benefits appear to be growing at an even more alarming rate,” she said.
Judge Earl in Sacramento was also critical of the legislative analyst’s thinking.
“They misunderstand the relationship between the AOC and the courts and the Judicial Council and the courts,” she said. “They seem to think the AOC is a control agency and we should be serving them.”
She said while there are some functions the AOC performs well, it should stay out of court employee contract negotiations. “I think the AOC serves a valid and important purpose in our branch,” Earl said. “But I think that the trial courts should be left to hire their staff, negotiate the pay of that staff, select the Court Executive Officer and run our court subject to the rules of court in a way that we think works best for our court and our county.”
Wading even deeper into the controversy, legislative analyst Soderborg suggested that the central group of judges and bureaucrats in the Judicial Council should be in charge of how the money is doled out to the trial courts. That body is widely criticized as a captive of the bureaucratic staff which has in the past set the agenda and steered the outcome of deliberations.
Calderon answered that it is absurd to allow the AOC and Judicial Council to be in charge of money for the trial courts.
“The LAO says there needs to be more accountability so we’ll let the Judicial Council tell us how the money is being spent without the Legislature having any independent evaluation,” he said sarcastically.
“Nobody in their right mind would ever suggest that the AOC is that agency that can provide that accountability,” said Calderon. “The AOC has misappropriated money, which is unconstitutional. They have no authority to appropriate money.”
The report, said to be a multi-year think piece, also seemed to take a direct shot at a bill sponsored last year by Calderon, AB 1208, which would have given control back to the local trial courts over the roughly $4 billion in money it takes to run California’s courts. The proposed legislation, which is now on hold, would have undone a controversial 14-year campaign by the former chief justice, Ron George, to take control of policy and spending away from the state’s 58 county courts.
“Given the massive investment that the state has made in establishing a state-run trial court system,” says the legislative analyst, “we believe that the Legislature should seek to eliminate these barriers and provide the state with greater control and responsibility over trial courts, rather than undo the realignment of the trial courts.”
Goring a different ox, the report also said that there may be a great deal of overlap between the work done by the central bureaucracy and the work of the trial courts. The bureaucracy has been under steady attack over the past year for its size and the opaque nature of its operations.
The legislative analyst said the administrative office should provide the legislature with an inventory of specific services it provides to the courts, finding inefficiency in the division of responsibilities between the AOC and the courts.
“There is little evidence that the current division of responsibilities between the AOC and the trial courts is efficient,” the report says. “This is because AOC does not collect information on the types of services that each trial court provides and how that compares to the services it provides to courts.”
The report recommends that, “The Judicial Council should report its recommendations for assigning each service to the entity able to the deliver the service with the greatest efficiency.”
Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Longbeach), reacted to the report with caution, repeating her recent theme that the judiciary needs to take care of its own problems. “I’m always open to, and interested in, suggestions from the LAO,” Lowenthal said. “But I do think the judicial branch should seek to iron out many of its internal challenges for itself.”
Lowenthal qualified that position last month during a judges’ conference, saying, “If the Legislature sees mismanagement, that’s another thing.”
Trial judges were passing around T-shirts at the conference that showed the Titanic tilting down into the ocean with the name of the bureaucracy’s billion-dollar IT system, CCMS, emblazoned above the image.
Money was also the focus of the press release sent out late last week by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, in reaction to the legislative analyst’s report. “Ensuring public access to courts by restoring the judicial branch budget remains our main concern,” said the chief justice.
Speaking at same Long Beach conference as Lowenthal, the chief justice said the state’s judges should band together to stand against legislative intrusion and advocate for more funding. “We can be a real force in the Legislature if we realize our strength,” she said.
But majority leader Calderon is not so sure.
“They shouldn’t get another dime unless they can justify the number of accusations that have been made and can deal with the actual evidence of malfeasance with respect to CCMS and construction funds.” He added,”If the legislature was conducting itself like that we’d be burned alive.”