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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

The Borg

In Star Trek, attempts to resist The Borg become one of the central themes, with many examples of successful resistance from assimilation targets.

The campaign by the state's central administrators to assimilate local courts would perforce involve pushing bureaucrats up the line in terms of power while also imposing a centrally controlled technology from the top down, I had long theorized.

In a recent set of rule changes, reported by Maria Dinzeo on this page, the administrators confirmed that theory.

The new court rules strike the word "direction" from the words describing the power of the presiding judge over the clerk who, under the old rules, acted "under the direction" of the head judge. In its place, the new rules say the clerk works under the judge's "general oversight."

On paper, it may not seem like a big difference. But the words ring differently. One says the judge calls the shots. The others says the judge can look over what is being done, in a general way.

And here's the link.

A second rule change gives the clerk the power to "employ adequate technology to further the mission of the court." That bit of phrasing has CCMS stamped all over it, the $1.3 billion software system called Court Case Management System.

Four counties have adopted the system, while others, such as Los Angeles, have resisted.

I should explain my use in this column of the title "Clerk." It is a traditional title in the law that in a perfectly dignified manner connotes a role with limited discretionary authority. And it contains one syllable, meaning it is a highly efficient word.

But the administrators in California decided some time ago that the Clerk should really should be called the Court Executive Officer, a title that contains a full eight syllables and is cumbersome to say and write. And it is often reduced to CEO, a term that connotes a great deal of discretionary authority.

All of it, the titles, the definition of roles, the assignment of duties, involves words. But they translate quite clearly into what one San Diego judge called "the rise of the bureaucrat."

I have been reading, slowly, a 651-page biography of John Adams who was a lawyer early in his life riding on horseback a 200-mile circuit in New England to argue cases. The book details his push to separate the colonies from the hold of the royal governors, based on a set of principles that continue to be reflected, in broad terms, in the law today.

The battle by some of the county courts against the central state administrators sometimes reminds me of that book.

Because the fight at its heart is about whether decisions should be made by bureaucrats or judges, and whether power should be pushed down from on high or rise up from below.

Judge Stephen Czuleger, for example, describe the rule changes as a "power grab." When I was a young reporter for the Boston Globe, I covered several, high-profile criminal cases handled by Czuleger as a federal prosecutor.

"The AOC is determined to aggrandize their own authority at all expense," said Czuleger referring to the central agency called Administration of the Courts. "It just sucks up as much authority as it can, sometimes legally, sometimes beyond what they're authorized to do."

The reason why the technology is so central to that discussion is because it not only goes hand in hand with the rise of the bureaucrats, it is also Exhibit A in the case against a centrally driven process dominated by them.

In my last column, I said the key that been missing from my understanding of the CCMS computer system is the extraordinary amount of time it demands from the court's workers, five to ten times longer than required under the previous system for the task of setting up a new case.

While trying to impose that technology on the trial courts, the statewide administrators are at the same time bleeding the courts at an extraordinary rate to pay the $1.3 billion cost for the system. Meanwhile, the courts are closing their doors on some days and laying off court workers.

Govern Jerry Brown now says we need to cut a whole bunch more money from the court budgets, given the $28 billion fiscal shortfall facing the state. So guess who is taking the hit.

The local courts, and in particular the folks down in the trenches.

One of our reporters was talking with a court supervisor who works with the CCMS system. He asked her if she thought the system was worth $1.3 billion. "Absolutely not," came the reply.

They discussed the fact that the same tasks take five times longer with the new system, while the staff continues to get cut.

The supervisor nodded and said matter of factly, "People are getting burned out."

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