SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – With a comment period closing this weekend, more than 90 percent of respondents are in favor of pressing ahead with reforms that would pare down and rein in the central bureaucracy of California’s courts.
“Please implement immediately all of the SEC recommendations forthwith,” Judge David Brown from San Diego wrote. “This dilly-dallying is unacceptable. Show some leadership – you are destroying the judiciary as directly as the budget. To borrow a phrase from advertising – just do it.”
As of Wednesday, 153 out of 168 comments, mostly from judges, support immediate action from the Judicial Council to adopt the recommendations of the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of judges appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to review how the Administrative Office of the Courts operates.
The committee’s scathing report was unveiled last month, but the Judicial Council voted to delay implementation of the proposed reforms, much to the vexation of judges up and down the state. They have flooded the Judicial Council’s online public comment box with exhortations to cut the AOC’s workforce, eliminate unnecessary divisions and ensure that the agency serves the courts, not its own purposes.
“In more than twenty years as a superior court judge, I have observed with concern, disappointment, and disgust the creation and growth of the AOC into an unresponsive, unnecessary, and irresponsible organization purportedly supervised by a feckless and equally irresponsible Judicial Council,” wrote Judge Robert Perry in Los Angeles. “The AOC is more than just an embarrassment. It is a travesty.”
Some Judicial Council members had expressed concern that a restructuring of the bureaucracy would harm people who depend on its services. They also worried about feelings hurt by the report’s blunt language. The council ultimately voted to call for public comment before moving forward.
But the resulting flood of comments showed a judiciary weary of surveys and studies, and ready to get moving. The words “immediately” and “urgently” are common, as is the phrase “without further delay.”
Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury of El Dorado County, one of the SEC report’s authors, wrote, “Every program and service offered by the AOC provides a benefit to some constituency. In the process of receiving comments about the SEC report, I am certain that the beneficiaries of these programs and services will implore the Judicial Council not to implement any reductions or eliminate any programs.”
“However, when courtrooms are shut down and clerks’ offices hours dramatically scaled back, no one benefits,” she wrote. “The AOC simply cannot be all things to all people, particularly in light of the current economic crisis. The Judicial Council cannot avoid making these tough decisions.”
The result of a year’s worth of research and interviews, the report highlighted many criticisms judges have held about the agency’s wasteful spending, generous hiring and telecommuting policy while courthouses were closing and laying off staff and its bungling of a massive statewide IT project for the courts. It also found the bureaucracy had hid information about its finances and the number of workers it employs.
Comments come from judges and commissioners all over the state, some retired, and many with over 20 years of bench experience.
“Please learn the lesson. Implement all recommendations. Preferably, yesterday,” wrote Judge Joseph Hurley of Alameda County Superior Court.
“The people who work at the AOC are not subject to re-election challenges every 6 years, as we are,” wrote Judge Ryan Wright of Ventura County Superior Court. “We have to answer to voters for decisions made by people who are not accountable to us. That is an incredibly difficult position to be in. The SEC recommendations … need to be immediately embraced and implemented.”
“The AOC has grown way too large, is management heavy and has lost its way,” wrote Judge Ariadne Symons from Santa Cruz. “I agree completely, based on my personal dealings with the AOC, that the members appear to believe they control the judges and tell them what to do, rather than support the judges in performing their functions.”
“I am deeply concerned about the lack of transparency, the lack of prudent fiscal decisions and many of the other items highlighted by the report,” Symons continued. “Please note my strong support of the recommendations set forth in the report and my belief that they should be implemented immediately.”
Judge David Lampe in Kern County said the AOC’s steady incursion into the running of the courts undermines judicial constitutional authority, an erosion that can be stopped with swift and wide-sweeping reform.
“Unless this substantial reduction takes place, we are in grave danger of losing the heart of what it means to be a judge,” wrote Lampe. “The value of our system lies in the idea that every judge is an independent decision-maker and an independent constitutional officer, deciding cases with courage, and with a careful view of the law.”
“The current situation is at odds with this traditional view of justice,” Lampe continued. “In addition to appearing to sanction efforts for full administrative control of the court system and fostering an insular organizational mentality, the AOC and Judicial Council subtly and increasingly appear to be moving in the direction of extra-constitutional authority over judicial decision-making, outside the process of normal appellate judicial review.”
Lampe has often articulated the constitutional basis for reining in the bureaucrats, and he is a director of the Alliance of California Judges, a reform group among California’s judiciary.
He said that judges are pressured into a type of group-think through mandatory, centrally controlled instruction of judges and doubtful legal opinions from the bureaucracy’s legal counsel.
“As judges are pressured to blindly accept the AOC’s view of the law, and of the proper resolution of conflicts, we move ever closer to a judicial system where substantive law is interpreted and applied not by independent judges, but by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who control those judges, and whose actions are beyond public view, and beyond appellate review.”
Only a handful of comments diverged from the mainstream view that the SEC’s report should be immediately implemented, and most come from groups other than the trial judges, such as the official lawyers organization in California and the National Center for State Courts.
One individual who commented is Alexander Aikman, a retired court administrator from Eldorado County. “Many judges do not have the background in management policy and experience that will produce the best solution,” he wrote.
In a follow-up interview, Aikman said, “However bright and committed to being a judge and to the branch working effectively the judges may be, they don’t have the whole picture.”
Illustrating the conflict between the appointed bureaucrats and elected judges, Aikman challenged the position of Kingsbury, the presiding judge in Eldorado County – the very court where he had worked.
“Kingsbury spent 55 weeks studying this,” he said in reference to her membership of the reform committee. “I can understand why she would support it, but I don’t think it’s the right answer. All I’m asking the council to do is stop and recognize that different senior management will make a difference.”
Revealing the depth of the politics surrounding the battle over control of the courts, Aikman sent an email to news reporters in California this week, offering his views and explaining that he had obtained the email addresses from the Administrative Office of the Courts. In turn, the Alliance sent out a newsletter last week warning of a campaign to slow down reform through the very argument made by Aikman.
“There appears to be a campaign afoot to delay implementation of the SEC recommendations by claiming that nothing should be done until a new executive director is selected,” said the newsletter. “This is the same misguided thinking that has placed us in our current position. Judges, not bureaucrats, need to be in charge.”
The move by the Judicial Council to scrutinize the SEC’s reform proposals and hold them up for a long comment period was itself subjected to attack.
“This ‘rolling public comment’ process does nothing to restore the credibility of the Council or its purported subordinate entity, the AOC,” wrote Judge Maryanne Gilliard of Sacramento Superior Court. “Instead it perpetuates the reality that the Council is unwilling or incapable to oversee a bureaucracy that has long since taken control.”
Judge Michele McKay McCoy of Santa Clara Superior Court speculated that the recommendations would never be adopted, pointing out that it took legislative action to halt the Court Case Management System, a half-billion-dollar IT project excoriated by the legislature and the state auditor for its cost overruns, mismanagement and ultimate failure.
“The reasons for each recommendation are clearly set forth in the SEC’s report, and borne out by the bitter experience of every sitting judge in the state. Unfortunately I have no expectation whatsoever that any of the SEC’s recommendations will be implemented,” said a skeptical McCoy. “All of the failures of the Judicial Council to control the AOC have been pointed out in the past by other reports and other audits, and all have been ignored.”
“It took an act of the legislature to stop the AOC from pouring more of the taxpayers’ dollars down the rat hole which is the CCMS. It will take another act by the legislature to end the bloated bureaucracy which is the AOC,” she concluded. “The Judicial Council clearly has no interest in the subject.”
The deadline for commenting on the SEC is July 22.