SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The judges of one of the Bay Area’s larger courts have sided with the supporters of legislation aimed at giving local courts throughout the state more decision-making authority over fiscal policy and rule-making.
Judge Gail Feuer abstained from the vote. Feuer’s husband, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) is on the Judicial Council.
In a letter disseminated yesterday, Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman said her fellow judges in San Mateo Superior “have overwhelmingly agreed” to back AB 1208, introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Montebello) in February.
“As local trial judges, we have the independent right and duty to manage the administrative and fiscal affairs of our courts in accordance with our own polices,” Labson Freeman wrote. “AB 1208 recognizes those rights and responsibilities, and seeks to ensure that they are further codified.”
She said many of the judges in her court feel they have been excessively controlled by the judicial branch’s bureaucratic agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts, which was originally intended to serve the state’s trial courts and enact policy adopted by branch leadership on the Judicial Council.
“This was a direct counting of the judges’ positions,” Labson Freeman said in an interview. Her letter comes on the heels of a California Judges Association survey that found a majority of more than 800 judges who responded statewide were dissatisfied with the Judicial Council’s oversight of the AOC.
“From the perspective of many within our trial court, there has been a sense of a shift to a ‘top down’ style of management, where the will of Judicial Council and AOC has been imposed upon the local trial courts,” Labson Freeman’s letter continues. “Many believe there has been an erosion of democratic principles with respect to the administration of our branch, including a lack of two-way communication and a lack of reasonable transparency.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye strongly opposes AB 1208, saying she prefers the judiciary to solve its own problems without legislative interference. In a recent interview, however, she said she takes seriously the concerns of many judges regarding judicial branch governance and still intends to conduct a review of the administrative agency.
“I think there is room for improvement,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “The AOC needs some tightening up.”
“It has to be stressed that the AOC is a service entity, not a control agency,” she continued. “We need to revisit the concept that the AOC serves the trial courts. If that means the Judicial Council needs to provide greater oversight, I endorse that.”
Labson-Freeman said she “wholeheartedly supports the chief, and I am encouraged by the effort she has taken to reach out to the trial courts.” While she added that she will work with the chief justice to address governance issues in the judicial branch, “there’s a separate legislative process that is underway and our letter speaks for itself.”
On Wednesday, the largest court in the state also came out in favor of the legislation. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said her court’s executive committee unanimously passed a motion supporting the bill at its Wednesday meeting.