SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Months of speculation as to who would take the reins from Bill Vickrey, California’s embattled court administrator, have been temporarily quieted with the ascension of right-hand man Ron Overholt. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Monday announced Overholt’s appointment as interim director of the Administrative Office of the Courts while a national search gets underway.
Overholt’s appointment was not surprising, after the chief justice said a few weeks ago that a formal search would not commence until the top court-policy group, the Judicial Council, moved on the matter.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to report something to you soon,” Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview late last month. In the statement from the chief on Monday, she noted that the council had asked her to appoint a committee to start the selection process.
The chief justice also said that with Overholt’s appointment as interim director, “the Judicial Council is ensuring an integrated transition of leadership at the Administrative Office of the Courts and the continuity of excellence in the administration of statewide courts.”
Overholt will take over as interim director on Sept. 10, having been Vickrey’s chief deputy since 2000.
During his tenure as deputy, Overholt strongly supported a costly statewide IT project, testifying last year before a panel of state legislators who questioned he and Vickrey over the prudence of the widely criticized Court Case Mangement System.
Overholt said at the time that $1.3 billion would be “the absolute cap” on the project’s cost. In February, however, the Bureau of State Audits estimated that the system would cost closer to $1.9 billion. The IT project has now been put on hold as the California courts grapple with heavy budget cuts.
Overholt, along with Vickrey, has been a polarizing figure among California’s trial judges who, in repeated surveys, have expressed sharp criticism of the administrative office and its policies, with the IT project at the forefront of that dissatisfaction.
Orange County judges, for example, urged the chief to avoid selecting anyone for the top spot who is associated with the current regime. They also called on her to either replace the directors at three regional administrative offices in Sacramento, Burbank and San Francisco, or dismantle the regional offices altogether.
“Replace Ron Overholt and each of the regional directors,” one judge wrote. Another judge wrote, “With regard to Bill Vickrey’s replacement, I believe it would be disastrous for anyone associated with the present administration to be put in his place.”
Cantil-Sakauye promised a top-to-bottom review of the administrative office and the large span of duties it has amassed, in an interview earlier this year. A number of judges have said that leaving the leadership in place at the central administrative office would undermine such a review.
“Nothing would more seriously undermine her stated intent to honestly conduct a top-to-bottom review of the AOC, its mission and priorities,” an Orange County trial judge said. “I believe if it is actually done, it will be found that much of the AOC agenda is unrelated to the core function of the AOC, which is to serve the courts. New management needs to emphasize to AOC staff that they serve the courts, they do not operate or run the courts.”
In response to the chief’s survey of trial judges calling for suggestions on judicial governance, a Sacramento judge wrote: “The Chief Justice needs to replace Judicial Council/AOC with new people with new perspectives and commitment to change.”
Reacting to Monday’s announcement, San Diego Judge Runston Maino said, “The judicial branch would be well served by having someone from the outside take a new look at the entire operation. In my opinion, the AOC needs a completely new set of tires instead of a set of retreads- even if the set of retreads are as good as a new set of tires.”