SANTA ANA (CN) In answers to a recent survey requested by the chief justice, Orange County trial judges have sent a cannonball hurtling toward the bureaucrats from the statewide Administrative Office of the Courts, saying they are arrogant, deeply manipulative, foolish at times, deceptive at others and have forgotten their role, which is to help the judges and not to “tell the courts what to do.”
The anger in some of the answers is visceral, portraying a double-whammy from the San Francisco “headquarters” of the judiciary, where the trial judges are caught between scheming mandarins who have some difficulty with the concept of truth and a nominally higher council that is described as “the chosen puppets of the few.”
Information flows only one way, say the Orange County judges, so much so that they cannot even answer the directives and statements sent to them by email. The building contracts have been managed so poorly that the Santa Ana court has indeed had to pay $395 to have a light bulb changed.
A huge and extraordinarily expensive IT project is lambasted as a “fiasco” and a “budget nightmare” pushed forward by un-elected bureaucrats who have “tried to bully trial courts into accepting an inferior product.”
That position on the IT project is all the more remarkable in that Orange County is one of the “early adopter” courts that accepted the software with open arms, only to become, based on two surveys this year, its most profound critic.
The new chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is urged to cut the bureaucracy by a quarter, overhaul the way the council members are selected and find a new director who has nothing to do with the administrators now in power.
The survey is the result of a request from the chief justice who asked the trial judges all around California to identify problems with the way the judicial branch is governed and the way the bureaucracy operates, and suggest concrete solutions.
In a recent interview, the Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said she had “read every single one of the answers” and is working with presiding judges “on how to proceed in responding and making serious changes.”
“The survey results will be revealing,” she added.
The chief is addressed with deference in the Orange County survey answers, by trial judges who often end their responses with a plea asking her to tame an agency that has become, in the words of one, a “mega-monster.”
A range of views is expressed in the survey answers. A few judges are supportive of the administrators and suggest the status quo is just fine.
“I think the AOC does a good job,” said one, adding however, “I applaud the Chief Justice’s current effort to review AOC operations top to bottom.”
“I feel there are very few if any problems with the AOC,” a second judge says in a very brief answer. “I would not presume to recommend anything to the Chief.”
But the large majority of the answers are in the range of unhappy to hopping mad.
“The AOC has gotten out of hand and expanded too much,” said one judge, while another described the agency as “bureaucratic lasagna.”
“It appears to me that the AOC believes it exists to tell the courts what to do,” said a third.
“Too many rules of court are staff-driven and appear to be in place to reinforce AOC control, rather than address legitimate needs of the branch and the public,” said a fourth judge.
But those are the moderately worded answers.
“The AOC leadership, down to and including the regional directors, are arrogant and dismissive of judges and act as though the judges are subservient to the AOC and its directives,” said one trial judge. “They are not and never have been judges and they do not understand or appreciate the proper constitutional role, responsibility and prestige of the judicial office.”
Another judge wrote, “The AOC seems to have a deeply embedded arrogance and disdain for the people it serves.”
This judge, as did others, referred to what they characterized as a sneaky legislative maneuver by the bureaucrats to take control of the local presiding judges.
“How else could it be the source of a proposal for the centralized selection of presiding judges that it then disavows? How else could it be rewarded with pay raises when everyone else has been tightening belts? How else could it have grown exponentially when courts have laid off staff.”
A second survey answer also referred to the effort to control the presiding judges.
“Disconcertingly there have been a number of devious attempts to grab power by`headquarters,'” said one judge. “There was the trailer bill to amend Section 77001 to given the Judicial Council more authority over the trial courts up to an including electing their presiding judges. Using a trailer bill to the budget to sneak something through the Legislature is a well known method of hiding something in Sacramento. When discovered, we were told it was just a `mistake’. That is doubtful.”
The Judicial Council, which is criticized, even by former members, as a constitutional body that is dominated by the bureaucrats ostensibly beneath it, also gets a good whack in the survey answers.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” said one answer, “and the members of the Judicial Council have largely been beguiled by the lure of trips to SF and nice lodgings and meals and rubbing shoulders with the elite. How can these pre-selected marionettes not drink the Kool Aid and vote unanimously for the party line?”
Another judge also took a shot at the council, which comprises both judges and head clerks.
“The Judicial Council has a reputation among trial court judges as an insular group that does not tolerate dissent, going so far as to rebuke and abuse trial court judges who have attempted to respectfully offer a different point of view or an objection to a proposal,” said another Orange County judge.
The judge said the council acts “in an imperious manner, routinely rubber stamping the position of the AOC.”
Another Orange County judge reflected a common perception among trial judges that the council is playing with a stacked deck.
“The members of the Judicial Council appear to be insiders who are friends of the (former) Chief or are friends and supporters of Mssrs. Vickrey and/or Overholt and their programs,” the judge said in reference to Bill Vickrey, the much criticized director of the administrative office, and his right hand, Ron Overholt. “There is a strong appearance that the way to rise up in judicial leadership is to do what Vickrey/Overholt want and to support their ideas.”
The same view was reflected by another trial judge who saw the same imperative from an inside angle.
“If you disagree with staff you are not considered a team player and are not invited back to participate.”
The judge said the presiding judges should have much more say, a recommendation that runs counter to the efforts of administrators who have sought to diminish the independence of presiding judges through proposed legislation and through rule changes.
“As things stand now, the only true representatives of the branch to the Judicial Council/AOC are the presiding judges, who are elected by the judges in their county.”
While the IT system, projected to cost $1.9 billion, received a great deal of comment, a number of lesser tactics and slights are also covered in the survey answers, principally the penchant of the bureaucrats to steer the discussion by controlling the flow of information.
For example, said the trial judge, almost any of the nearly 900 staffers at the AOC can send an email to all the judges in the state.” Some of the messages are “merely self-promoting” while others are important but controversial.
“But I have no way of answering literally,” said the judge. “The AOC messages are one way only.”
A tactic that is criticized roundly by the Orange County judges but also those in other county courts is the way information is spoon fed to the trial judges.
The agendas of advisory groups, said one survey answer, are stuffed with “talking heads” and “public relations fluff” while the important problems facing the courts are pushed aside.
“Judges are asked to vote on proposals that are presented for the first time when the meeting convenes, and then only after an AOC staff person has ‘walked us through’ the details,” the judge said.
Another common tactic by the administrators is to attempt to control public reaction by issuing press releases suggesting they have already or are in the process of addressing any complaints, particularly those that get the Legislature’s attention.
Earlier this year, the state auditor published a scathing analysis of the bureaucracy’s handling of the IT initiative called the Court Case Management System. That report received a great deal of attention in the Legislature, but a corollary event that received less attention was a press release statement from Justice Terence Bruiniers, a defender of the IT program, after the audit.
“While I am loathe to single out individuals, the position taken by one justice was simply embarrassing when he stated literally the day after the state auditor’s blistering report came out that there is no reason to be concerned with CCMS, as all the items in the auditor’s report had already been addressed,” said a survey answer.
Reporting at the time shows that, based on email time stamps, the press release in question was actually released 11 minutes after the state auditor’s report was published. It had clearly been prepared in advance.
A second key event in the recent narrative is what is referred to by judges as the “midnight pay raises,” a set of hefty, retroactive pay raises for the bureaucrats, approved by a Judicial Council subcommittee as the former governor and the former chief justice were on their way out of office at the end of last year.
The survey answer continued, “The incredibly politically tone-deaf decisions in the last year such as AOC raises (the fig leaf of calling them merit pay adjustments does not merit comment) and significant investments in CCMS while closing courthouses state-wide one day a month show an incredible lack of common sense.”
As one of the many elements of information control, another judge diplomatically challenged the willingness of some bureaucrats to tell the truth.
“The prevalent AOC culture,” said the trial judge, “appears to be to avoid candor when faced with a difficult question.”
Indignities and Insults
The indignities visited upon the judges range from relatively minor ones to more fundamental insults.
Even though constitutionally empowered and elected trial judges have official identification, one survey answer noted, the judges must wait in line, empty their pockets and go through a metal detector to get into the headquarters building.
While the bureaucrats are waved through.
More fundamentally, a judge who wishes to speak at Judicial Council meetings in those same headquarters must submit a written statement and have it approved ahead of time, said one answer. Even after jumping through those hoops, the trial judges who speak have been cut off or called “clowns.”
In reference to the impending retirement of the AOC’s director, the judge said, “With regard to Bill Vickrey’s replacement, I believe it would be disastrous for anyone associated with the present administration to be put in his place.”
Although it has been eclipsed by the the bungled effort to take over the data system in the trial courts, a second big initiative by the administrators taking control of the physical buildings that house the courts throughout California also received a good blast of criticism.
In a caricature of government waste, one judge complains that “It did cost the branch $395 to change a light bulb in our trial court facilities.”
That cost resulted from the inopportune maintenance contract negotiated by the civil servants in San Francisco who allowed a 300% mark up by the maintenance contractor with minimum labor increments of one hour.
But, as has been the case in every survey out of a number conducted this year, the IT program comes in for some special words.
“CCMS, a perfect example of what is wrong with the AOC, has been expanded exponentially with inadequate planning, all of which has led to huge cost overruns,” said one judge.
“Worse, when the size and scope of the financial catastrophe of CCMS became obvious to trial court judges and legislators alike, the Judicial Council’s inexplicable reaction was to simply circle the wagons in support of the AOC’s untenable positions and its (soon to be former) director.”
The judge added, “By any business metric, CCMS has been and continues to be a debacle, in no small measure due to the lack of proper oversight and management of the AOC by the Judicial Council. At this date, who (outside of government) would ever accept a computer system with a platform design that is ten years old and will not be fully deployed until 2016?”
In one particularly scathing answer, a judge wrote, “What are the specific problems with the operation of the AOC? The difficulty with this question is where to start. Seriously. Read the State Auditor’s report. A bureaucracy run amok, costs out of control, misleading (if not fraudulent) reports to coordinate branches of government. The damage done to the judiciary as a result of the Judicial Council’s failure to oversee the AOC’s CCMS project is simply incalculable.”
The judge also blamed the severe financial difficulty of the California courts, now trying to find a way to cut $350 million from their budget, squarely on the information services division of the administrative office, saying the division “still does not understand that it is largely responsible for this fiasco and public relations and budget nightmare.”
“Instead of building the best system possible, the IS Division has attempted to bully trial courts into accepting an inferior product. It is also indefensible that trial courts, particularly those with sophisticated IT staffs, are locked out of all CCMS discussions.”
Another judge wrote that the failure of the project had caused him to doubt the competence of the administrators.
“My perception is that CCMS has not worked, has been extraordinarily costly and may never be finished. With all the negative publicity from the CCMS audit, the reputation of the judicial branch has been significantly tarnished in my opinion, and funds that could have been put to better use were wasted. CCMS has caused me to distrust the basic competence of those at `headquarters.'”
While one judge said he would not presume to give advice to the chief, the large majority of those answering the survey questions had plenty of suggestions for improvement on the way the courts in California are now run. Their central theme was to cut the power and size of the bureaucracy, put some democracy into the selection process for the Judicial Council, and give the trial judges more control of their courts.
“I would like to see more local control back, and the AOC mega monster reduced in size and budget,” one judge offered tersely.
Another recommended the AOC’s three regional offices be closed and the staff positions connected with them be cut.
“Then cut the staff size of the AOC in San Francisco by 25%. This would still leave about 825 AOC staffers to serve about 1,700 active judges and justices in the state- a ratio of almost one AOC staff persons for every two judges. That should be more than sufficient for a support organization,” the judge said.
The trial judge also advocated sweeping changes within the Judicial Council. “Ask for all incumbent members to resign. Democratize the selection process by allowing trial judges to elect some members to the Council from the trial court bench (appellate justices as well ).”
Referring to the chief justice’s stated intent to conduct a top to bottom review of the administrative office, another Orange County judge said it would be disastrous to replace the outgoing director with anyone tied to the group now in control of the office.
“Nothing would more seriously undermine her stated intent to honestly conduct a top to bottom review of the AOC, its mission and priorities,” said the judge.
“I believe if it is actually done, it will be found that much of the AOC agenda is unrelated to the core function of the AOC, which is to serve the courts. New management needs to emphasize to AOC staff that they serve the courts, they do not operate or run the courts.”