SACRAMENTO (CN) - Trial judges throughout California hit back against power grabs by judicial bureaucrats through a bill introduced in the Assembly late Friday that would guarantee autonomy for head trial judges in running their courts.
Introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), the Trial Court Rights Act would amend the government code to ensure that courts are considered independent of the state's judicial bureaucracy, made up of the Judicial Council and its administrative arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The bill delivers its message right at the outset when it says, "The Judicial Council does not govern the trial courts."
The proposed legislation follows on the heels of a harsh audit by the legislature, concluding that administrators understated the true price of a controversial IT system that is now predicted to cost roughly $3 billion and continues to drain money from trial court funds.
"The AOC is insisting on going forward with it while we're closing courtrooms," said Calderon in an interview.
Judge David Lampe of Kern County Superior Court said the proposed bill would allow the trial judges to gain control of their courts and work for those who elected them.
"The law will help restore public confidence that the judges they elect to serve their communities are given both the right and the responsibility to ensure that public money spent to administer the trial courts is prudently managed."
Lampe is a director of the Alliance of California Judges whose membership numbers roughly 350 judges from all regions of California.
They have enlisted in their cause one of the most powerful and experienced members of the California Assembly.
Calderon, a longtime power in state politics, also served as a state senator and was the first Hispanic Senate Majority Leader in California, He has been in the legislature 20 years, the longest of any senator or assembly member.
He is also the first to have held the position of Majority Leader in both the Senate and Assembly. Calderon received his law degree from the University of California Davis and worked as a prosecutor before his election to the Assembly in 1982.
In an interview, Calderon said he felt compelled to get involved in the issue after hearing complaints from judges about the growing bureaucracy.
"A number of judges have complained since last year about how the AOC has seemed to create a bureaucracy in the Judicial Council, and how it's managing judges in their trial courts," Calderon said. He added that he was also a member of the Judicial Council from 1995-1996, back when "there was no bureaucracy."
The AOC has since expanded enormously. "The AOC wasn't anywhere near the size it is now. The bureaucracy is enormous. I believe they are up to 1,100 people," said Calderon. "That's huge."
With Calderon's help, the trial judges are taking the strongest action yet to counter the will of the statewide administrators.
Members of the alliance of trial judges argue that the bill is necessary to enforce provisions of the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, which stipulated that the judicial administration allow individual trial courts to manage their finances without bureaucratic interference.
Even though mandated by the legislature, the statewide administrators never adopted that stipulation regarding trial court independence.
Calderon's bill means to correct the administrative omission.
The administrators failed to follow through on the independence guarantee, according to the alliance of trial judges, even as they pushed to change court rules that would increase the power of the top local court administrator at the expense of the presiding judge's power to direct the court.
Those rule changes also put decisions about technology projects in the hands of the administrators. That rule change in particular comes in the context of the ambitious IT project called Court Case Management System now predicted to cost nearly $3 billion. The project has raised both the ire and the fighting spirit of trial judges who are faced with closing courtrooms and employee layoffs. It has also prompted a bit of critical satire mocking the system.
Calderon's bill would add language to the government code that strengthens the authority and independence of the trial courts.
Under the proposed bill, all funds allocated for court operations would be given to the trial courts directly to be spent at their discretion.
That funding provision arises out of a disputed transfer out of the Trial Court Trust Fund by court administrators in order to support the multi-billion dollar IT project.
That trial court trust, many judges argue, was set aside to ease funding shortfalls in the trial courts, but the AOC contends that the trust fund money was never intended specifically for trial court operations.
A number of administrators and judges who have defended the project either were unavailable or declined comment on the newly proposed legislation.
"This act will go a long way toward restoring balance in judicial governance, by implementing the principles originally intended by the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997," said a statement released by the Alliance of California Judges. "It will bring the trial courts, into the judicial governance process as full partners with statewide administration."
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