To Dither |or Not to Dither

     In an email conversation with a judge, I commented that the outpouring of website commentary from California judges felt like a rebellion. He emailed back, saying it was good to see the judges at last standing up on their own two feet.
     Looking at the website again, I still want to rub my eyes in reaction to the breadth and sheer volume of the commenters whose names are preceded by “Hon.”
     Hundreds of judges are practically shouting for reform of the system.
     When I looked today, the name at the top of the list, with the most recent comment, was from Judge Lance Ito. He wants to know who is behind the manipulation of the pension system within the court administrative office and who in the office of the general counsel approved that manipulation.
     Ito concludes with one word: “WHO?”
     His comment brought immediately to mind a conference in Long Beach a year ago, a period that, with all the intervening events, seems like an eternity, where judges were indeed shouting.
     The judges at the California Judge Association conference were asking for a different name, that of the person behind a tricky maneuver that would have removed trial court administrators from the supervision of the trial court’s presiding judge, thus transferring all administrative power in the courthouse to the centralized bureaucracy.
     The gambit, an amendment to a trailer bill in the Legislature, failed. But Ito and other judges wanted to know who was behind it.
     You could hear the anger in their shouts. They were head hunting.
     They did not get their answer. But in the months since then, California’s chief justice set up an evaluation committee that in turn issued a massive report recommending sweeping and fundamental reforms to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     The reforms include a radical downsizing of the bureaucracy that has ballooned in the last two decades.
     The large number of proposed changes also included a fundamental reversal of the basic role of the agency, saying the administrators should return to the role they had in the past, that of serving the judges rather than trying to lord over them.
     The reforms are the topic for comment on the current website, where so many judges are posting their opinions. The margin in favor moving forward with the reforms is about 90%.
     The comments are also shot through with suspicion that the administrators along with a compliant and weak-kneed Judicial Council will try to slow down and derail the reform train.
     “The 400-plus judges who responded shed anonymity and openly stood behind their statements critical of ‘business as usual,'” wrote Judge Kevin McCormick in Sacramento.
     He added, “The results are nothing short of a resounding and emphatic demand for implementation of reform and an unambiguous expression of the exasperation of judges to the endless excuses for delaying long overdue reforms.”
     Appeals Court Justice Arthur Gilbert wrote, “To dither is to wither. It is time to act, now, not after more unnecessary deliberation.”
     In looking down the list of more than 400 judges who have posted comments, I was curious about the judges from smaller trial courts, in the sparsely populated north of California or along the central coast.
     Much has been made of the division between the smaller courts who are said to largely depend on the bureaucracy, and therefore be more likely to support it, and the bigger courts like the behemoth Los Angeles that are powerful enough to battle the mandarins from the central office.
     But I found no such division in reading the comments. Judges in small courts and the judges in big courts joined together in urging that the deep reforms recommended by the evaluation committee be put into action.
     From Placer County, Judge Alan Pineschi urged adoption of the proposed reforms “with all due speed.”
     From the gold rush county of Amador, Judge David Richmond wrote, “The past failed structure can no longer be tolerated.”
     From the central coast county of San Luis Obispo, Judge Dodie Harman quoted John F. Kennedy in saying, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”

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