Presiding Judges Chart New Course, Toss Staff

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) California’s presiding judges are throwing off years of dominance by the bureaucratic staff based in San Francisco, with a meeting that included taking to task the bureaucracy’s head lawyer and removing staff members from the room so the judges could speak frankly.
     “Not having staff in the room allowed the presiding judges to be completely candid,” said incoming committee chair Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County. “I’m implementing a different approach to these meetings.”
     He added, “I’m attempting to give the presiding judges much more opportunity to meet together, talk together and work together. In the past, these meetings have been more in the form of lectures where AOC staff basically give us information. In my opinion that can be done in a different way, without taking up the entire meeting.”
     Rosenberg said the initiative to move to break away from the staff’s dominance was shared by both himself and the outgoing head of the presiding judges group, San Diego’s Kevin Enright.
     With staff out of the room, the judges discussed how the courts are led, the judiciary’s budget crisis and what the relationship should be between the judges and the central bureaucracy of the courts.
     “The whole purpose of the exercise was to give presiding judges an opportunity to talk frankly without hesitation,” he said. “There was great commonality voiced by the judges.”
     A second judge present at the meeting said, “I thought it was very productive, because the judges were able to talk amongst ourselves about these issues we are all facing. The gauge of success will be what becomes of that, and if any of our thoughts and frustrations are passed on further.”
     The judge said discussions with AOC staff, which included interim director Ron Overholt and General Counsel Mary Roberts, were heated during the first day of meetings.
     In particular, San Francisco’s presiding judge, Katherine Feinstein, clashed with general counsel Roberts over a legal opinion on a proposal by the Bar Association of San Francisco for increases in some lawyer appearance fees.
     Feinstein was displeased, and according to those present expressed that displeasure clearly, with Roberts for failing to provide a legal opinion in time for the meeting. Overholt’s attempt to calm the waters did not help, said those familiar with the events.
     Feinstein runs a court that has been hit the hardest by the budget crisis, with a wholesale shutdown of San Francisco’s civil courts threatened. The lawyers in the Bay Area, whose livelihoods would be put in jeopardy by such a shutdown, have proposed increasing lawyer appearance fees for case management conferences in complex cases.
     Feinstein, who is desperate for money to run her courts, wants the proposal approved. Roberts did not complete her opinion in time for the presiding judges’ meeting but she did complete it in time for this week’s meeting of the Judicial Council, which has authority to OK the fee hike.
     Roberts’ opinion recommended against approval.
     Another issue at last week’s presiding judges’ meeting generated “heated discussion,” according to the judge. It was about an overhaul committee headed by Justice Arthur Scotland.
     Earlier this year, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye asked Scotland’s group to survey judges, attorneys and court employees from all over the state on a range of issues, including whether many of the bureaucrats are even needed.
     In a presentation to the presiding judges, Scotland said his committee may take until next summer to come up with its findings.
     “There was some frustration about that,” said the judge. “Many of us advocated that the Judicial Council cut the AOC before the trial courts in terms of budget.”
     The judge said the administrators had claimed to be waiting on information from Scotland’s overhaul committee, called the Strategic Evaluation Committee, in order to reorganize the bureaucracy. The two sides are locked in battle over funding.
     The judges argue that the trial courts must be kept open, and to do that money should be taken away from the army of highly paid bureaucrats in San Francisco. The bureaucrats, on the other hand, are fighting to protect their turf.
     Some judges at the meeting believed the AOC should not be waiting for conclusions from the SEC before it started reorganizing.
     “There is some belief that if they are relying on the information from the SEC they won’t be able to participate in budget discussions,” said the judge.

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