Open Committees

     I wanted to be careful in the take we took on a proposed rule that would open up Judicial Council committees and allow the public to see how the sausage of court policy is made.
     I welcomed the rule as the editor of a news service that has unsuccessfully asked to attend a number of closed committee hearings. But I also wanted to know how the proposed exemptions would pan out, having seen state court bureaucrats fight transparency while giving it lip service.
     Some really bad decisions have been made by the Judicial Council committees, the most fundamental of which was to go along with the former chief justice’s campaign to shift power from the local courts to a central bureaucracy. A knock-on campaign to centralize court records set in motion and failed to financially control a contractor that would charge the state an enormous amount of money and leave it with nothing more than a cumbersome and already outdated software system.
     Another effect was the extraordinary bloating, like an enormous balloon inflating, of the Administrative Office of the Courts which loved its perks and its money. When the financial crisis that would blast a huge hole in trial court budgets was already well underway, the Judicial Council’s inaptly named Financial Accountability and Efficiency Committee met and recommended a big, retroactive pay raise for the already well paid AOC bureaucrats.
     That meeting was the first chaired by the newly appointed chief justice. Through the chief’s media person, we asked the chair to allow us to attend, a request that, again through the media liaison, was refused.
     Since then, we have regularly reported on Judicial Council meetings which are open to press and public. But spirited debate is not the normal fare of those sessions.
     The reporter who covers them estimates that 90% of the public discussion involves ratifying decisions made behind closed doors. “It’s because things have been settled,” said Maria Dinzeo.
     The most recent Judicial Council session is a good example. On the agenda that day were 33 consent items based on decisions by closed committees plus two “information only” items consisting of reports on administrative structuring and public notice of clerk office closures. No debate, no vote.
     There were three matters on the “discussion agenda,” but one was a “no-action” item having to do with languages. The remaining two, involving facilities budgets and a laundry list of the administrative director duties, were unanimously approved based on recommendations by two committees, both of which were closed.
     Of the many substantive issues facing the courts, none were discussed. There was no story, nothing to report.
     In the past, council members have defended their consent items and unanimous votes by pointing to a vigorous thrashing out of the issues in committee. They sweep over the obvious irony that the committees, where all that vigorous debate took place, met in secret session.
     So I welcome the proposal to open committee meetings and take with good faith the statements of the committee chairs in favor of the proposed rule.
     At the same time, the rule is only being proposed under pressure from the Legislature. And the list of exemptions is long and wide, leaving an awful lot of room for interpretation by a committee chair who wants to close a meeting.
     In the past, the clearly expressed intent of the Legislature — to shut down the half-billion-dollar software project, for example, and eliminate the top-loaded, no-match, taxpayer-paid, 22% pension payments for the top 30 administrative office honchos — was followed with apparent reluctance and only when the Legislature pressed the matter. In both instances, the software wreck and the pension perk kept a half-life.
     Add to that the historical character of the administrative machinery at the top of the courts, which is to put on a show of transparency while undermining its substance. The recent gambit by bureaucrats and judges writing the e-filing rules is a fine example of that tactic.
     The same group that brought us the technology boondoggle sought to muddle the definition of when a case is e-filed, an obfuscation that appears in every way to be a little trick, a definitional sleight of hand, that would give administrators an excuse to delay press access to the public record.
     The concerted objections of a cross section of the media, including the California Newspaper Publishers Association, did nothing to affect those rules and was met with a defense that did not state facts accurately.
     But then, those that put the e-filing rules in place were not dealing with a paymaster. The Legislature’s views are not so easy to dismiss.
     So the test of the open committee rule, and of those now leading the courts in California, will be in the exemptions, first to see how they are cut down and then to see how they are interpreted when we again ask to attend a committee meeting.

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