SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a wide-ranging interview last week, California’s new Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she plans to do a “top to bottom review” of the judicial branch’s administrative agency. She said she was a trial court judge and supports flexibility and local control by the trial courts.
Cantil-Sakauye who has been on the job about 80 days said she wants to conduct a full evaluation of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the agency that oversees California’s 58 trial courts stretching from San Diego in the south to Del Norte County in the far north of the state.
“There needs to be a top to bottom evaluation of the AOC,” said the chief. “I want to get to the heart of whether the AOC is bloated.”
She said she has put together a group of retired justices and judges to evaluate “how the AOC works, whether it has too many staff and how we can be better.”
“The AOC doesn’t need to do all the things it does, it seems to me,” she added.
Cantil-Sakauye was sworn into office on January 3, after the former chief justice, Ron George, suddenly announced his retirement last July, handing off a judicial branch enmeshed in a dire budget crisis, contention between state trial judges and judicial bureaucrats over court governance and a troubled court computer project that the state auditor recently revealed to be in danger of failure.
One of the more difficult and immediate issues facing the chief will be how to proceed with the IT project, called the Court Case Management System. Many trial judges have complained that the administrative agency is trying to push the inefficient and enormously expensive system onto the local courts.
Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview last Thursday that while she believes the project is a good idea, she is not in any hurry.
“I think the vision I have about CCMS is a shared vision, emphasis on the word vision, that the idea is a tremendously positive idea, but its future is uncertain because of the audit and understandably so, with very alarming findings,” she said.
“Ideally my vision for CCMS is extremely cautious and limited. I understand that soon the final software product will be developed but there are a myriad of issues surrounding the cost and feasibility of deployment,” said the chief. “All I would like is to see that the courts that want it can move forward and cautiously deploy to those courts that want it. That’s about as ambitious as I am about CCMS right now.”
In her two months as California’s top judge, Cantil-Sakauye has weathered an ongoing barrage of criticism over the administrative office’s policies and priorities. The chief’s cancellation of her State of the Judiciary speech also drew the focus of some judges who found it unusual.
“At the time,” said the chief justice, “the legislature was deep into the budget. I felt that it would really be cumbersome and difficult for legislators to attend and I don’t want my state of the judiciary to be only about the budget. I honestly feel as the first ethnic minority female judge that I want to talk about more than the budget.”
“If I’d given it in February over the budget it would have been falling on deaf ears and people had more important things to think about.” the chief added. “When the legislature gets over the budget and gets some breathing room I’ll be calling to ask if I can have it set up again.”
Among the voices criticizing the court’s administrative agency, which operates under the leadership of the chief justice, is a big group of trial court judges called the Alliance of California Judges, formed in 2009 to fight what they saw as wasteful spending and aggressive power grabs by court administrators.
While the Alliance judges have pressed on the IT project as a massive boondoggle, they also found a legislative sponsor for AB 1208, called The Trial Court Rights Act. It was introduced by long-time Assembly member Charles Calderon (D-Montebello) and it is intended to hand power back to presiding judges in the trial courts.
Cantil-Sakauye strongly opposes that bill.
“I think the substance of the bill raises some good points, I also think those good points can be solved in-house amongst the branch,” she said. “I have always had and still have an open door to please come together to solve this. We don’t need legislation to solve our conflict. I’ve said to Calderon personally that respectfully I oppose this bill because it’s a governance issue, and that means we solve our problems.”
The chief justice said she does support legislative financial oversight within the judicial branch, and firmly believes individual trial courts should control their own money. Under the former chief justice, the administrative agency pushed through changes that allowed the central agency to control local rules and control the finances of local courts.
“The presiding judges are the bosses and they know best the needs and flexibility of their courts. I was a trial judge and you need to have local control of that,” said Cantil-Sakauye in the interview.
She added that she has “many changes in mind” for the judicial branch, starting with broadening the membership of the Judicial Council which operates under the leadership of the chief justice.
The council has often been criticized as an insular group made up of a favored minority of judges who rarely disagree with each other or with the bureaucrats from the administrative office.
“This claim about the insular elite membership, okay I’ll give you that under George,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “But that is not me. If there’s a way to assist the trial courts I’m open to it,” she said, adding that she is open to dissent on the Judicial Council.
“I really feel that the Judicial Council needs to broaden its membership,” she said. “They have too much work and the same people are doing the work. We need to get more people involved.”
Determined to carve her own path with her administration, Cantil-Sakauye said she admires the “collective wisdom of the judicial branch” over any of her predecessors. “I don’t believe in following in footsteps. I believe in making your own footprint,” she said. “As chief I want to make my own footstep.”
Cantil-Sakauye, 50, is the daughter of Filipino farm workers. She is a Sacramento native and earned her B.A. and law degrees from the University of California, Davis.
She worked as a deputy district attorney in Sacramento and moved to Gov. George Deukmejian’s administration as deputy legal affairs secretary. She was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson to Sacramento Superior Court in 1997 and elevated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Court of Appeal in 2005 before Schwarzenegger put her in the top job last fall.
At her swearing in ceremony last fall, she told a story from her childhood. She said her mother would take Tani and her brothers and sister to the park outside of the Capitol, but she never imagined that she or her family would ever go inside.
“Now, here we are inside, sitting in the front row!” she exclaimed to the crowd, which burst into applause.
In wrapping up the interview last week, Cantil-Sakauye said she welcomes calls from reporters.
“I believe in absolute transparency,” she said. “We have to have it for people to have faith and understand what we do. I truly wish more people would call me.”