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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Tale of Two Councils

This is a tale of two different judicial councils in two different court systems, one state, one federal.

In the case of the California Judicial Council, the great majority of its members are appointed by the state's chief justice who sits as head of the council and is also the ultimate boss of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Within that system, enormous administrative office mistakes have sailed through the council, most prominently a half-billon dollar computer software boondoggle.

In a move to make the council a better watchdog and give it more independence, a group of trial judges has been pushing for selection of council members by majority vote among the state's judges.

Two events over the last couple years have convinced me that the California Judicial Council indeed does not have the power and independence necessary to control the 800-strong army of bureaucrats within the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The first had to do with the now-notorious software project that was drowning the courts in a sea of wasted public money. The council in the summer of 2011 called a one-year halt to the project and its daily expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the very next council meeting, a month later, the administrators came back and said they would not be stopping the project. In fact, they were pressing ahead with it. I expected someone -- anyone -- to speak up and say, hey, we voted to stop this thing. It did not happen.

The silence told me that the council knew and accepted the fact that it did not have control over the administrative office.

The second event was earlier this year, when a set of judges representing every judicial constituency in the state -- the California Judges Association, the Alliance of California Judges, the presiding judges association, the head of committee of judges that recommended a raft of administrative office reforms -- all recommended putting a stop to telecommuting by administrators.

Those judges -- who unanimously took a position against telecommuting and who, taken together, spoke for the judges of California -- received not a single vote on the council.

In fact, the vote was unanimous against them.

The administrative office had recommended that it should keep its telecommuting perk, and so it would be. That unanimous vote for the administrators and against the judges told me a second time that the council does not have the power and independence to control the administrative office.

Switching over to the federal system, I read our reporter Tim Hull's coverage of a federal judge's decision to retire after circulation of a coarse joke concerning President Obama, and saw that the Ninth Circuit Judicial Council had issued a recommendation in the matter.

So I checked with the Ninth Circuit to find out how its judicial council is put together.

Judges come onto the council primarily through seniority and majority vote. The council's 11 voting members are made up of the circuit's chief judge, five circuit judges and five district judges.

Three of the five circuit judges are chosen by seniority from within each of three geographic groupings -- north, middle and south -- within the circuit. The fourth is the circuit judge next in line to become chief. The fifth is a senior judge appointed by the chief judge.

Of the five district judges, one is a senior judge who is selected by a vote of all senior district judges in the circuit. The other four are chief judges of their judicial districts.

Of those four, one is always from the central district that includes Los Angeles and is the biggest trial court in the circuit. The other three come from the other 14 judicial districts within the circuit on a revolving basis.

The Ninth Circuit Judicial Council thus represents the various regions within the circuit and evenly represents trial judges and appellate judges. Its members are chosen primarily through various forms of seniority that provide power and independence in decision making.

On the other side of the governmental divide, the California Judicial Council needs greater power and independence in controlling a bureaucracy that has grown powerful, willful and unwise.

A California Judicial Council made up in a manner that reflects some combination of geography, seniority and majority vote would be more likely to exercise the authority needed to rein in that bureaucracy and be more representative of the state's judges.

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