(CN) - Trial court judges are seething over what they describe as a "naked power grab" by the statewide bureaucracy of the California courts -- a proposal to strip trial courts of the authority to hire their employees.
"This comes under the heading of, 'Are you kidding me?' It's just inane," said Judge Steve White of Sacramento. "It is concerning that anybody would think this is a good idea."
Control over the day-to-day operation of the trial courts has been a bone of contention between trial judges and powerful bureaucrats in San Francisco for many years.
Officials in what was formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts sought in 2011 to limit the ability of the trial judges to control technology in their own courts through a rule change, and two years earlier an administrative office lobbyist had made a stealthy effort to take away the power of the trial courts to hire their head clerk, as part of budget negotiations in the Legislature.
According to a group of trial judges, the defeated notion was brought back to life recently in a closed session of the executive committee of a subcommittee of the Futures Commission. The commission, chaired by California Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan, was set up last year by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to find ways of saving money in the operation of California's courts.
Corrigan did not comment directly on the most recent controversy. But she said in an email that many ideas are being raised and discussed and there will be a number of public hearings where those ideas can be debated.
"Early in our work we solicited ideas from judges, lawyers and members of the public," the justice wrote. "Over the last several months the Commission has been discussing a number of ideas that might have merit."
How far the power-stripping idea traveled along the road from passing notion to solid proposal has itself become an issue of debate.
Appellate Justice James Humes is a member of the executive committee where the idea is said to have been proposed. He said it might be an idea, but all kinds of ideas are floating around the committee. And he called much of the reaction "inflammatory."
California Judges Association president Judge Eric Taylor wrote in an email, "I'd like to hear more about what is actually being discussed as opposed to rumors. And CJA will certainly inquire about this rumor."
"The balance between local court autonomy and centralized management is very delicate," he added. "As personnel issues around the state are very complicated and diverse, with obvious differences from region to region, a local perspective is critical."
Julie Conger, a retired judge who is an expert in judicial ethics, blasted the idea of taking away the trial court's power to hire and fire its own clerks. She called it "an unveiled attempt to further undermine judicial control of the courtroom."
"Personnel decisions not made locally will imperil cooperation and congeniality within the courtroom environment and will have a deleterious effect on workplace relationships," she said.
The alarm was first raised last week in a statement from the Alliance of California Judges.