Running for the Hills

     When I was growing up, my dad told me that he had met Federal Judge Manuel Real who at the time was ordering the Pasadena school district to integrate.
     My dad agreed with that order.
     He told me a couple years later that he refused to teach AP English classes anymore – and I knew that he enjoyed that work — because Pasadena High School would not integrate his AP classes.
     He paid a high price for his idealism. In taking on the lower level classes, he could not motivate the students, the underachievers, he could not make miracles. The job became a chore.
     And ultimately he moved back to Pasadena City College to teach photo and cinema.
     I know now the intensity of these efforts to change an institution’s behavior. At the time, my dad’s story was just another story about work.
     But I retained the notion that a judge could move an institution, and my experience as a journalist showed that the top judge in the courthouse held sway over that courthouse.
     In what seems like our eternal struggle to preserve traditional press access to the flow of filings and rulings in a courthouse, if the chief judge said we should have access, it became so.
     But that has changed.
     What I see in the California state courts is that the clerks and the bureaucracy behind them at the state courts’ administrative office are ascendant. The presiding judge is certainly not a mere piffle but he or she has little power to “make it so” as Captain Piccard says in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
     In their brief two-year tenure, the presiding judges tend to spend the first year learning and the second year as a lame duck. While the clerk endures for decades, and becomes the administrative power, along with the many tiers of lieutenants, in the courthouse.
     With notable exceptions, state court clerks have been much less interested in press access than presiding judges. The state court clerk in Houston, for example, was sufficiently uninterested that it required a federal judge’s order for him to give us prompt access to the new filings.
     So when I read the story by Maria Dinzeo on our website about a movement among a group of California judges to take power back from the Administrative Office of the Courts, I well understood what was causing a normally staid group of powerful public servants to become agitators against the establishment.
     The Alliance of California Judges says its members number 200. They want the legislature to pass a Bill of Rights for trial judges.
     The proposed bill is meant to guarantee local control by the trial court judges with the independent power to manage the affairs of the court, including the power to elect a presiding judge with the authority to assign judges and, crucially, the power to hire the administrative personnel and control contracts for security and for maintenance, and to control the use of funds allocated for the trial courts.
     “The AOC does not govern the trial courts,” Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe told an oversight committee in the California legislature. “When the Legislature allocates funds, all of that money needs to be given to the trial courts for court operations, not IT projects.”
     Lampe spoke in the context of a legislative hearing last week looking into the swashbuckling spending ways of the administrative body, in particular the enormous amount of money – building up to $1.3 billion – spent on programming for a centralized case management system.
     The legislators on the committee questioned the expenses but they seemed to accept that the contract with Deloitte to develop the system as a fait accompli. It is my suspicion that until the legislature puts its foot down, the river of money will simply keep flowing, as what appears to be an over-engineered and already outdated system breaks and needs fixing and ultimately replacement.
     But committee members also referred to an upcoming legislative audit of the computer project that the members said is expected in late November.
     If the audit is thorough and honest, it will, in my opinion, be bad.
     And I see that either in foresight or by coincidence, a fair amount of movement is taking place at the top level of the judicial establishment tied to the program, most importantly with the retirement of its principal legislative champion, Chief Judge Ronald George, and further with the sudden decommission of the AOC’s committee overseeing the computer program.
     Sounding a bit too much like Rush Limbaugh, I say to our lawyers, “They are running for the hills.”

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