SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At a closed meeting Friday, California’s Judicial Council chose retired judge Steven Jahr as the new head of its central bureaucracy. Jahr steps into an agency that has been under heavy criticism from judges and legislators over its size and spending and the cloaked manner of its decision-making.
Retired Justice Arthur Scotland called the appointment “a grand slam home run.”
Jahr’s appointment comes after six months of searching for a replacement for former director William Vickrey, who retired in September 2011 amidst growing controversy over the agency’s spending practices and mismanagement of a statewide IT project for the courts.
Jahr will take charge of the agency in October.
For the last two decades, Jahr worked as a judge for Shasta County Superior Court, before retiring in 2009.
“I understand the world of the courtroom,” said Jahr, in a press release by the Administrative Office of the Courts. “As a former presiding judge, I know and appreciate that taking care of the administrative side of a courtroom helps make a judge succeed.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, “The depth of his experience in the judicial branch-as a trial court judge, as a presiding judge, and as a participant in statewide judicial branch initiatives-makes him an ideal choice.”
In the past two years, the central court bureaucracy that Jahr will lead has been hammered by criticism from trial judges, legislators and the state auditor for its handling of an ambitious and ultimately extraordinarily wasteful IT project while hiding the complete costs of the half-billion-dollar project from the Legislature.
Concerned that money meant for the courts was being funneled away toward such projects, reform-minded judges introduced legislation in 2010 to ensure that all the money allocated to the trial courts goes to the courts.
Jahr, who was chairman of a task force on trial court funding during the tenure of former chief justice Ron George, opposed that legislation.
In a letter to the council and chief justice, Jahr wrote that judges supporting AB 1208 had justified their position “based upon allegations that the Judicial Council had ignored a requirement set out in the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 to promulgate rules of court which would ensure strong and independent local court financial management. Since I had been involved in the trial court funding reform process on behalf of the Judicial Council during those years, I was aware of the steps which had actually been taken and knew these allegations to be untrue.”
Provisions of AB 1208 were enacted through the budget process in June 2012, with legislators voting to put strict limits on the judiciary’s spending on statewide projects, such as the failed IT system, and prohibited taking any money for such projects from a trust fund meant for trial court operations.
The reform group behind the legislation, the Alliance of California Judges, has moved on to pushing the courts’ governing body, the Judicial Council, to adopt the sweeping changes to the central bureaucracy that were recommended by a committee appointed by the chief justice. In its report, the committee called for the central bureaucracy to be dramatically downsized, to become more transparent and to focus on serving the judiciary.
The Alliance urged Jahr to support that report.
“In light of Judge Jahr’s public and written opposition to the trial court funding reform advanced by the Alliance, we have concerns,” said the group’s statement. “Nevertheless, now is the time for the Judicial Council and the new director to embrace the future and fully endorse immediate implementation of the recommendations of the Chief Justice’s Strategic Evaluation Committee.”
In the few hours since the council’s unanimous vote, Jahr has enjoyed enthusiastic support from council members and colleagues. Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, head of the council’s presiding judges’ committee, said, “A judge in charge of the AOC and a former PJ to boot. Just what the doctor ordered.”
Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury of El Dorado County, also member of the SEC, said in a statement, “I’m absolutely delighted that a former judge is assuming the leadership of the Administrative Office of the Courts. I’ve known Steve Jahr forever as a judge and branch leader and he’s an outstanding choice. He will understand the concerns of the trial courts and open the lines of communication so that the branch can move forward in a positive fashion.”
Retired Justice Arthur Scotland, who served as chair of the SEC for a brief period before stepping down to represent California’s legislative leaders in a lawsuit against Controller John Chiang, added, “The Chief Justice and Judicial Council hit a grand-slam home run in selecting Steve Jahr as the new Administrative Director.”
“Judge Jahr is widely respected for his intellect, knowledge of courts and the judicial system, management experience, and good judgment,” he said. “An exceptional communicator with vision and unquestioned integrity, he will be a superb leader of the AOC and an ideal ambassador for the judicial branch. Simply stated, it is a brilliant choice.”