SACRAMENTO (CN) – After months of vehement debate among California’s trial judges, a contentious bill that would have given more financial power to individual courts was not brought to the Assembly floor last week. Though it enjoyed overwhelming support from Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest court in the state, as well as the trial courts in Sacramento, Mariposa, and Kern counties, a legislative vote on AB 1208, the Trial Court Rights Act, has been deferred until next year.
“I don’t think more time hurts. It can only help,” said Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), the bill’s author. “I’m happy with where the bill is.” Calderon said Friday that a perceived slight from Democrats the day before may have killed his chances of getting AB 1208 passed, and he didn’t want to run the risk of bringing it to the floor midst political tensions with the Republicans.
Calderon said he’d spent last week lining up his votes, and was optimistic after a vote count on Thursday.
“It looked like I had enough votes to get this bill out even with the double cross that happens with every bill, and then all hell broke out on the floor.”
Assembly Democrats took up a healthcare bill authored by Assembly member Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) out of order, which caused Republicans to storm off the floor. “They were furious at Democratic leadership,” Calderon said on Friday.
“Things were so tense that they could have gone nuclear at any moment. And given that environment I didn’t want to run the risk of that interfering with the bill,” he added.
Noting that the deadline for moving bills out of the Assembly was Friday, Calderon said more time may have saved the bill, but given the sentiment among his colleagues he is confident it will gain more strength next year.
“I was moving as fast as I could. Would I have liked more time? Yes. I know I’ve got the votes to get it off the floor and there were more and more members who were starting to lean toward the bill, because the more information I gave them, the more they began to understand what was at stake,” said Calderon. “So I’m happy with where it is.”
Judicial supporters of the bill offered a second reason, saying lobbyists for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the 1000-person bureaucracy that sits over the trial courts, were furiously working the Senate Judiciary Committee for a “quick kill” of the legislation. Moving the bill to two-year status avoids that legislative death trap, said the supporters.
The legislative maneuver to keep the bill in play, they said, allows the trial courts to retain leverage over a bureaucracy that is resented and criticized among many legislators and trial judges, largely because of what is seen as arrogance in exercising power and ineptitude in spending large amounts of public funds.
Like Calderon, Judge David Lampe of Kern County Superior, one of the directors of an organization of trial judges formed in response to growing dissatisfaction with spending priorities in the judicial branch, said he too, is “satisfied with the progress of the bill.”
“I’m not disappointed,” Lampe said. “We do trust Calderon’s judgement on when to take the bill up and we defer to his management of his bill. The bill enjoys strong bipartisan support. When it should be taken up is really his decision. I don’t consider it a loss.”
Though the bill had been altered in the Assembly’ Judiciary Committee, Lampe said its fundamental purpose of restoring spending power to the courts, had been preserved.
“There was original language we wanted in the bill that was a reiteration of existing law about the rights of the trial courts and the opponents categorically criticized it as interference with governance of judiciary,” said Lampe. “The core of the bill has always been about making sure that 100 percent of trial court operating funds are in fact delivered to the trial courts and that has always been the issue.”
While the bill has had support from judges throughout the state, it has also faced extreme opposition from the judiciary’s bureaucracy in the Administrative Office of the Courts, and from judges aligned with them.
Last month Judge James Herman from Santa Barbara sent a letter to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who also opposes the bill, saying his court and several others in neighboring counties objected to AB 1208 and supported the chief’s position that disputes between the AOC and individual trial courts should be resolved without legislative action. What made Herman’s letter controversial was that it appeared to have been written on the letterhead of the California Judges Association, a long-standing organization of judges that while remaining neutral on the bill, polled its members in March and found the majority of responding members to be dissatisfied with the judicial branch’s leadership.
Another controversy erupted in March when CJA president Judge Keith Davis went to Sacramento to lobby against the bill. While Davis said he had met with Calderon as an independent judge from San Bernardino, others saw it differently. “The implication, whether he intended it or not, was that I’m president of the CJA which represents the judges, and we don’t have a problem with the current system,” Calderon said in an interview back in March.
Los Angeles Superior’s former presiding judge said that if one were to have asked his opinion back when the bill was filed he “would have said it was best handled as a two-year bill.” Judge Stephen Czuleger, whose court backed the bill, said deferring AB 1208 by a year “gives both sides a chance to see what the new chief justice is going to do and give people a chance to come up with the right way to restructure what’s been going on in the last several years.”
On Friday, Lampe said the bill has gained strength despite an overwhelming amount of paid lobbying from the bill’s opponents because “we’re on the right side of the issue.”
“I look at it the other way tremendous energy has been spent on the other side to defeat this bill by people who are paid to do this, and they didn’t get that to happen,” said Lampe.
Asked whether the bill’s delay might give the chief justice a chance to explore and eradicate possible malfeasance within the branch, Lampe replied, “I think the answer remains to be seen. This is not about really who the chief justice is. We believe the funding statutes need reform and that can’t be done except with the legislature.”