SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - An old mystery that has pursued California's judicial leadership came up again at a statewide conference last weekend, when a Los Angeles judge was blocked in his pursuit of answers over a scheme to strip trial courts of the power to choose their leaders.
The controversy surrounds a provision inserted in a trailer bill, the catch-all legislation that accompanies a budget agreement, giving the central Judicial Council, and its administrative staff, the power to name local court leaders.
The gambit, which ultimately failed, would have taken that power away from trial judges who traditionally have voted to select their presiding judges, and it would have greatly increased the centralized control of the council and its bureaucracy.
But the identity of those who attempted the coup remains a mystery.
Los Angeles Judge Lance Ito has pursued the mystery, bringing it up at last year's California Judges Association conference in Long Beach and again last weekend at the group's conference in Monterey, trying to find out who was responsible.
"I submitted the questions in advance to the Chief and to one of the moderators, Judge Barbara Kronlund from San Joaquin," he said in an email.
"Kronlund told me the procedure was to submit the questions much, much more in advance. This question has been pending since the CJA conference in Long Beach. Which of course begs the question why the continued cover-up?"
In the face of at times withering criticism over the administrative handling of finances and policy, judges defending the administration have argued that California's judges should take common public positions, or "speak with one voice."
"The Chief has adopted, for better or worse, her predecessor's 'One Voice' mantra as we approach the fiscal abyss that has been looming for the past 4+ years," Ito said.
This year, he submitted a question for Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye's question- and-answer session with judges, asking once again who authorized the trailer bill language. His question was rejected before it could be asked.
While some judges say the matter has been put to rest, others continue to ask for an explanation on how a legislative proposal, largely seen as a back-door move by the Administrative Office of the Courts to shift power over court management to the central bureaucracy, came to be.
In a packed session at last year's conference in Long Beach, judges questioned panelist Douglas Miller, an appellate justice, about who had authorized the trailer bill language and who drafted it.
"Why was it drafted in the first place?" Judge Ito yelled out, followed by Judge Timothy Fall from Yolo County, who shouted, "Why don't you have the answer?"
Miller said he knew who was behind the draft, but could not give the name. He added that Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter, chair of the council's Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee, generally referred to as PCLC, had withdrawn the provision, saying he had been blindsided by it.
In a recent interview, Miller expressed his wish to have the mystery cleared up.
"I wish the leadership of the council and the AOC had just come out and admitted what happened," said Miller. "I don't think it would have continued for this time as a controversy."