SACRAMENTO (CN) Survey answers from Sacramento’s trial judges have direct bearing on a budget working group meeting in San Francisco Wednesday to assess $350 million in cuts to the judiciary’s overall budget. Trial judges called on Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye to institute sweeping cuts to the staff of the bureaucracy, close its three regional offices and impose salary freezes on all its employees.
The chief is also urged to revamp the Judicial Council, that stands nominally above the bureaucracy, by appointing dissenting judges and opening internal committee meetings to the public. One trial judge suggested that the council, by closing its committee meetings and limiting dissenting voices, “seems afraid of comments particularly those that are critical.”
The budget working group meeting on Wednesday was closed to the press, despite two specific requests to attend from Courthouse News.
In describing the Administrative Office of the Courts as “arrogant and retaliatory,” suggesting the agency’s primary ability is to usurp power, challenging the agency’s competence and calling for the disbandment of “an unproductive, unnecessary bureaucracy,” the answers reflect a deep-seated anger with the roughly 1,000-person agency that acts “in its own interests, rather than in the interests of the branch.”
Ratcheting up the heat, the trial judges criticized the “opulent and spacious work site” and “exorbitant salaries” of the bureaucrats in their San Francisco sanctum while jurors and ordinary Californians work in “relative shabbiness” when giving free service to the state and the judicial system, after first paying the taxes to support it.
In another context, the comments would be jaw-dropping in their untrammeled strength and white-hot anger. While the 29 Sacramento judges who answered the survey do not claim to represent the view of the Sacramento court as a whole, the fact that they comprise half the court’s bench is striking.
Along with those in Orange County and Los Angeles, the Sacramento trial judges have also formed a tidal wave of criticism running against a vast, complex and expensive IT project promoted by the bureaucracy. The Sacramento judges call the project a “debacle” and “one of the most disgraced and mismanaged computer systems this state has ever seen.”
Like the those from Orange County, the contemptuous evaluations are bred from familiarity. Sacramento is an “early adopter” court that embraced the new IT software under the direction of a former presiding judge.
Many judges in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Orange County have credited the new chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, with a willingness to ask for their opinion in considering how to go forward in a time of financial stress.
“There needs to be a top to bottom evaluation of the AOC,” said Cantil-Sakauye in an interview earlier this year. “The AOC doesn’t need to do all the things it does, it seems to me.”
As part of that evaluation, the chief sent a survey to trial judges throughout California, asking them to tell her what they think is wrong and suggest some concrete solutions. She has gotten an avalanche of mail.
The Sacramento judges turned most of their criticism on the AOC, beginning with the sheer magnitude of its staff, which many responses described as “bloated” and “unnecessary.”
One judge wrote, “In the past 10 years, the staff of the AOC has grown from less than 300 to more than 1,100. As local courts have cut staff, the AOC has been completely held harmless from those same cuts by hiring ‘temporary’ employees and refusing to impose a real hiring freeze.”
The judge added, “Their growth appears to be unlimited based on the addition of more and more functions that they can usurp from others.”
Another wrote, “The AOC has grown so much and now employs so many that judges legitimately question the ‘bang for the buck’ return,” pointing out that former Chief Justice Ron George asked trial judges to give up some of their pay while approving raises for AOC employees.
“And when I’m understaffed in my courtroom, yet getting requests from some Administrative Coordinator II working for the Executive Office Programs Division . . . well that strikes me as insulting.”
“The AOC operates with unchecked authority and no ceiling on its own bureaucracy,” said a third judge.
A fourth said, “The AOC is too large. The AOC is bloated. There are too many staffers based on the number of judicial officers that they are supposed to serve.”
“It has grown at an alarming rate and represents empire building at its worst. There is no maintain a staff of 1,000 or more to ‘assist’ the trial courts,” said yet another, who suggested the chief justice “eliminate many of those positions and diversify those resources where they belong at the local level.”
One survey answer called the AOC’s size and budget “indefensible,” and its management “overpaid.”
The judge added, “The judiciary does not need three AOC offices with three regional administrators who make exorbitant salaries.”
`Arrogant’ and `Out of Touch’
Another common impression among the responding judges is the bureaucracy’s elevated view of itself, which prevents it from performing its intended role of serving the state’s 58 trial courts.
“AOC management and staff fail to comprehend and communicate that they are in service to the judicial branch, and specifically, to the courts. A ‘palace mentality’ has developed because they are insular and removed from the day-to-day operations of court management,” said one judge. “If the AOC were to cease, courts would continue to perform their constitutional functions; if the courts were to cease, there would be no AOC.”
Another survey answer excoriated the bureaucrats for having lost touch with its original purpose.
“The AOC has lost sight, with the Judicial Council’s approval, of its role. Its role is to assist the courts in administering court functions; not to drive the court functions.”
The same judge also remarked on the one-way line of communication that enables the AOC to send out mass messages to all the state courts, to which the trial judges are unable to respond. “As some have said, the AOC seems to be ‘tone deaf’ to the calls from the court. The communication line goes one way AOC to the courts.”
At least two judges highlighted the lavishness of the AOC’s offices to the comparatively dingy surroundings in which judges and their juries deliberate.
“On an appearance level, the opulent and spacious work site of the AOC and its regional offices is indefensible when compared to the relative shabbiness we ask jurors to deliberate in and decide real important issues.”
Another judge reflected that the AOC’s “plush” offices illustrate its tendency to spend “while local courts starve,” adding “AOC personnel have no understanding of what actually happens in a trial court or volume court.”
The tone-deafness of the AOC toward the needs of the courts was also repeatedly referenced in the survey answers.
“The AOC is completely tone deaf and their motives are constantly put in issue by their self-serving actions,” a judge wrote, citing as an example retroactive pay raises for AOC staffers while Sacramento judges took a five percent pay cut and other courts were forced to lay off employees who “actually perform real court functions” in response to the state’s budget crisis.
Other responses were even more scathing.
“AOC management is arrogant and retaliatory,” one judge said. “As an organization the AOC is an unproductive, unnecessary bureaucracy employing hundreds and hundreds of overpaid people who produce very little that is of utility to the judges and court management throughout the state.” The judge adds “Simply stated, the AOC ‘Abuses and Overcharges Californians.'”
Another judge’s response underscores a morale problem among judges, resulting from a feeling of powerlessness. “AOC has so completely dominated major policy that I feel like a cog in a machine,” the judge wrote.
Other answers also touched on that theme. One judge said that beginning with Ron George, who was known as an administrator as well as the state’s former chief justice, “there has been a consistent effort to undermine the autonomy of the trial courts.”
In another response, a judge wrote, “I would state there is a palpable attitude amongst AOC staff that the judges work for them, and not vice versa. Judges are individual constitutional officers and not subject to some of the governance that the AOC and council would believe are appropriate.”
A third judge said, “Rather than adopting policies that assist the trial courts, it promulgates rules that interfere with them.”
A fourth judge was more specific, saying the Sacramento court had attempted to contact the AOC to discuss a memo regarding AOC counsel’s alleged misinterpretation of a fee statute.
The judge said the AOC “rebuffed” the court’s attempts at communication. “The basic message is we’re not interested in talking about it and we’re right. The underlying message was the AOC staff has the authority to dictate statutory interpretation to judges.”
In another answer, a judge references Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye’s own statement that the AOC “is not a control agency.” The judge responds, “One could sure not tell that from the trial court level.”
Wag the Dog
The Sacramento judges also take the Judicial Council to task for what they see as a failure to properly oversee the bureaucrats, who have attempted to assert authority over the courts through proposed legislation and rule changes.
“The Judicial Council has failed to provide meaningful oversight of the AOC,” said one judge. Another observed, “The Judicial Council does not govern at all. It merely ratifies the AOC’s agenda.”
Other judges were critical of council membership and decision making, which they deemed insular, exclusive and secretive.
“I feel current branch governance is remote, insular and elitist,” one judge said. “Currently, if you aren’t a member of the ‘club’ or the in crowd you can’t serve on select committees or more commonly your dissenting views are ignored and in some cases openly disparaged.”
“The membership of the Judicial Council and the committee memberships currently are selected based on cronyism and not ability, aptitude, knowledge or demonstrated leadership qualities,” another judge wrote.
Yet another quipped, “Original thought is not valued, adherence to the company line is,” adding that the fact that the council has never voted down an AOC recommendation “is damning evidence that the tail wags the dog.”
The judges also levy criticism against the council’s closed door committee meetings and backroom dealings.
Those who wish to speak at bi-monthly council meetings, the only ones open to the public as internal committees are supposedly confidential and off limits even to trial judges, must submit in writing what they wish to say for pre-approval. Judges are then restricted to a mere five minutes to present their opinions on matters up for discussion by the council.
Their frustration with the process is palpable, and one judge even refers to the council’s autocratic Executive and Planning Committee, which, under the chairmanship of Associate Justice Richard Huffman, made most of the decisions as to how council meetings should be run.
“Judicial Council decision making is secretive because many key decisions are made by the Executive and Planning Committee on private phone calls and or behind closed doors, precluding the judges of this state from expressing concerns or from even receiving notice,” the judge said.
Another judge even suggested that the council, by closing its committee meetings and limiting dissenting voices, “seems afraid of comments particularly those that are critical.”
A number of critical judges have attempted to speak out against the AOC’s latest boondoggle, a massive IT system projected to cost $1.9 billion, that remains unfinished and mostly unused in the courts.
At Wednesday’s closed meeting of the Judicial Council’s budget committee, AOC staff, a number of whom hold seats on that committee, will suggest that the system’s planned installation be delayed for six months to a year, according to a staff agenda for the meetiong. Even though its latest version of that system, V-4, has already been put on hold for an indeterminate period in San Diego and Orange County.
The Sacramento judges urge the chief justice to scrap the project entirely, calling the Court Case Management System an embarrassment to the judicial branch that must be halted before more money is poured down the drain.
“Put CCMS on hold. Spend no more money on it,” one judge advises. “Keep trial courts open with that money. CCMS is of no value to the trial courts.”
Another judge recalls late last year when AOC staff recommended the transfer of $100 million to technology projects from a trust fund meant to keep the courts running.
“The money should be returned to the fund and CCMS put on hold,” said the judge. “The money is needed to keep the courts open, and should not be spent on a system that does not work, is over budget, and a system that the vast majority of judges do not want or need.”
Under the critical eye of the media when the transfer took place, the AOC argued that the trust fund was never meant solely for court operations, casting doubt as to the money’s return.
One judge also condemns the Judicial Council’s recent attempts to reign in the project by creating an oversight committee while some of its members also sit on another CCMS committee created by current AOC director Bill Vickrey.
When judges complained about court closures while there was supposedly money aplenty to fund CCMS, former chief justice George, “publicly criticized the vocal judges, stating that they were only concerned with the cut in their pay.”
“This was insulting and wrong,” the judge says. “My concern was for my branch not my voluntarily forfeited pay.”
Perhaps no other court has faced as much CCMS-related adversity than Sacramento, which has in the past threatened to pull the plug on an AOC-sponsored remote server because of its continuous outages.
Even with a more than competent IT department, there has been no end of problems for the court revolving around CCMS, and now the court is considering going back to paper, fed up with a barely functioning computer system and blame from AOC management for the bureaucracy’s own failures to deliver on its promises.
In the words of one diplomatically-worded survey answer, “Very significant judicial officer and court personnel time and resources were dedicated at the outset by courts such as Sacramento in a fashion that would lead rational people to now say we were duped.”
The judge continues, suggesting a profound lack of business acumen on the part of AOC management in entering into a one-sided contract with high-priced consulting firm Deloitte to develop the system.
“To be there and actually hear the branch governance personnel say there is no holding the provider accountable because the contract wasn’t written in such a fashion to require performance.” writes the judge, “just kills any respect for branch governance’s competence.”
A substantial portion of the Sacramento report is turned toward advising the new chief justice, who has been called a breath of fresh air for California’s judiciary, on how the judicial branch might be redeemed. One judge said simply that, “The most conspicuous problem is the CCMS fiasco.”
The judge continues, “The CCMS folly symbolizes the inflexible, dogmatic attitude of the AOC. Although well-intentioned, the development and implementation of CCMS has been a disaster. Tragically, if the system can somehow be made to work consistently with reasonable expectations, it will certainly be obsolete when compared to whatever is the level of technology at the time. We need to consider cutting our losses.”
A restructuring of the Judicial Council was also at the forefront of the solutions. One judge proposes a “revamping of the Judicial Council and its subcommittees or advisory committees to reflect a cross-section of the courts and divergence of viewpoint.” as council appointments have always been the domain of the chief justice, the judge also encourages the chief to “allow the appointment to the council by the courts themselves.”
Indeed, most of the judges advise opening up the council and its committees to more dissenting judges, allowing for longer public comment periods and opening traditionally closed meetings.
The Sacramento judges also suggest the chief take a heavy-handed approach in dealing with the AOC by drastically cutting the staff and closing its three regional offices.
A judge strongly suggests the departure of Ron Overholt, Vickrey’s right hand, and Jody Patel, the director of the AOC’s Northern Regional office, noting the previous resignations of the director and Sheila Calabro, another AOC official who was for years in charge of the IT project.
“Consider the retirements of Vickrey and Calabro to be gifts from God and immediately accept the resignations of Ron Overholt and Jody Patel,” said the judge.
And, although one judge offers re-education for the bureaucrats “so they understand they work for us, not the other way around,” another trial judge proposes more extreme measures. “The AOC,” said the judge, “serves no needed service and should be dismantled forthwith.”