SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Answers to a massive survey of 3,500 judges and officials in California are due in early August as part of the chief justice’s promised overhaul of a bloated court bureaucracy. The answers will almost certainly reflect the long-building anger within judges working in the state’s 58 county courthouses, and the ongoing battle for funds that have been pared back by the Legislature.
“The trial courts have been cutting over the last six to eight years and the AOC has done nothing but grow,” said Los Angeles Judge Robert Dukes, referring to the San Francisco-based administrative office. “In my view, we should cut the AOC to the point where they no longer exist before we cut the trial courts.”
The survey was sent last week to 3,500 judges, justices, lawyers and court clerks who will evaluate the structure and function of the Administrative Office of the Courts, a bureaucracy that has been under fire for months over its size and spending as local courtrooms around the state are forced to close.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye set up a committee headed by retired appellate Justice Arthur Scotland to ask questions and make recommendations. “There needs to be a top to bottom evaluation of the AOC,” said the chief justice in an interview earlier this year. “The AOC doesn’t need to do all the things it does, it seems to me.”
Scotland said the survey questionnaires from the Strategic Evaluation Committee do not ask the recipients to “protect or defend” the AOC but “are designed to allow us to have an objective and meaningful assessment.”
“We’re inviting every judge to provide their views on the AOC and we’ve gone beyond that,” he said, adding that the anonymity of the survey “encourages candor.”
At last week’s meeting of the Judicial Council, the governing body for California’s courts, judges argued that the trial courts are much more critical to the operation the judicial branch as opposed to the nebulous tasks of a vast bureaucratic agency.
“Additional reductions to the AOC may be made as we see what the 2012-2013 budget looks like,” Los Angeles Judge David Wesley said at the meeting. He argued that the council should also be free to make more cuts to the bureaucrats’ budget after seeing Scotland’s report.
In a memo that accompanies the survey, Justice Scotland says his committee is conducting an in-depth review of the organizational structure, methods of operation and budget of the AOC.
He says the committee will assess the AOC’s priorities and operating methods, and decide whether changes should be made so the agency fulfills its core functions in a cost-effective and transparent manner.
“I clearly fall on the side that the AOC needs to cut much much deeper,” said Dukes in Los Angeles. “The context I think the survey has to be placed in is what services, given that if we continue to fund the AOC at the amount that its currently funded and your court will be cutting its own ability to serve the public, what services would you like to see stopped?”
Dukes, who is a former presiding judge and 22-year veteran of the trial court, has watched the AOC grow from a relatively modest 300-employee agency to a bureaucracy staffed with over 1,000 full-time staff and contract workers whose 11 “divisions” handle everything from judicial education to court maintenance and human resources.
“Judges and presiding judges for a number of years have been pointing out the direction that this was going,” Dukes said. “We’re vilified for suggesting the ineptness of the AOC and now it’s coming home to roost.”
Dukes said one of the chief justice’s top priorities should be closing the AOC’s three regional offices in Sacramento, Burbank and San Francisco.
“The regional offices to me seem to be a huge expense that is unnecessary from the standpoint of the trial courts,” he said. “When I was presiding judge in Los Angeles we attended a whole lot of meetings in the regional office and we all admired all the things they had that we didn’t, but what gets accomplished at the regional office remains a mystery.”
The questionnaire aims fully 30 questions at division heads of the administrative office, including, “What is the most essential core function of the unit?” The administrators are also asked to describe any regular review that the unit undertakes to find out if it is doing its job well.
The questionnaire is accompanied by a link and the respondents are asked to fill in the questionnaire online.
It is broken up into sections, aimed at trial judges, administrative officials, former employees at the AOC, the supreme court clerk who gets an individual questionnaire, appellate court justices, and presiding judges at the trial and appellate levels who are classed with their clerks in terms of questions.
For example, the survey asks former employees, “What do you see as being the largest problems and/or obstacles that the AOC faces?”
And where would they cut.
“If the division/unit in which you worked were facing resource limitations, what changes (e.g., eliminating, consolidating, or streamlining specified functions and services) would you recommend? Why?”
In a list of 20 questions for trial judges, they are asked, “What changes, if any, would you propose be made to the organizational structure of the AOC, and why?”
The survey was also sent to current administrative office officials, including outgoing director Bill Vickrey and interim director Ron Overholt, and asks if they receive periodic reviews. It also asks them to name their five most significant accomplishments in the last five years.
“The objective in sending the surveys to those employees of the AOC is to obtain information from them about how the AOC is functioning and operating and that will give us the information that we need to be able to objectively understand and assess everything the AOC does,” Scotland said in an interview.
“I think each member of the SEC is familiar with some and perhaps even many of the functions and services the AOC performs. I’m not aware of everything but we need to be informed. We need to make decisions that are based upon verified information instead of simply perceptions.”
The survey answers are due August 9, after which Scotland and the rest of the committee will conduct in-person interviews with AOC higher-ups and any AOC employees “that are amenable.” Committee members also plan to interview every presiding judge, administrative presiding justice and head clerk in California’s 58 trial courts and six appellate districts.
There are 13 trial court judges on the committee from all over California, including El Dorado and Placer in the historic gold rush area of the Sierra Nevada, San Bernardino and Riverside in the Southern California desert, Stanislaus and Sacramento in agricultural heartland and the urban centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Justice Scotland added that any judge or justice who indicates a desire to be interviewed will also be contacted by a member of the committee.
If Dukes were interviewed, he would almost certainly point to judicial education as yet another example of administrative excess, where the bureaucrats in his view have transformed a worthwhile and modest program into an expensive machine for propaganda.
“They took over a very fine education system that was run by the California Judges Association,” said Dukes, “and in the view of many, turned it into a system of indoctrination instead of education.”
“When I attended, it was run by the CJA, and one of the things that was hammered into every judge is that the judge is responsible for running the court, not some bureaucracy,” said the judge.
Now, he said, “The culture is the judges in some way work for a huge corporate structure that is the AOC and the Judicial Council.”