SACRAMENTO (CN) – A controversial bill transferring budget and policy power back to California’s trial courts has been abruptly moved from one committee to another, in a round of last-minute deal making in the Legislature. The bill was scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Assembly’s accountability committee, which has been investigating how judicial administrators spend state money, but the hearing was moved late Monday to the Assembly Judiciary Committee, whose chairman has closer ties to judicial branch leadership.
Written by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Los Angeles), the Trial Court Rights Act or AB 1208 was supposed to be taken up today by the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, but the bill was reassigned after discussions between Calderon and Mike Feuer, (D-Los Angeles) who heads the judiciary committee.
“I wouldn’t expect Mr. Feuer to be anything but fair on this but there is a lot of mistrust going on now in the courts and I didn’t want to add to the level of suspicion that is out there in the trial courts,” Calderon said Wednesday.
Calderon said he was at first resistant to moving the bill because of Feuer’s membership on the Judicial Council, the governing body for the judicial branch. The Judicial Council has opposed the bill and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has expressed strong opposition.
“So we’ve been having this debate which ultimately came to a head on Monday,” said Calderon, “where I had a discussion with Mr. Feuer and I’m satisfied I will get a fair hearing in the Judiciary Committee.”
According to the language of the bill, AB 1208 gives individual trial courts more control over money allocated from the state for trial court operations, and ensures that each court has a right to “manage its financial and administrative affairs in accordance with its own policies.”
The bill has enjoyed wide support among trial court judges throughout the state. A survey of judges belonging to the California Judges Association revealed a large majority in favor of the bill, while the executive committee of the biggest court in the state, Los Angeles Superior, voted unanimously last week to endorse the bill after polling over 400 judges in its 12 districts.
“Each district reported overwhelming support,” Los Angeles Presiding Judge Lee Edmon told Courthouse News last week. “We think that it is the right vehicle for change.” On the court’s executive committee, only Feuer’s wife, Judge Gail Feuer, abstained from the vote in favor of AB1208.
According to individual responses from trial courts in a survey taken by the state auditor, a large majority of trial courts reject the spending priorities of the judiciary’s central administrators. The trial courts said they had been left out of the decision making process within the judiciary, that money has been wasted on an enormous IT project that is now approaching $2 billion on its cost estimate, and that the project is not designed for the needs of the smaller courts.
The bill moving power back to the trial courts is currently caught up in a round of deal making in the legislature, where whole lists of bills are being switched from one committee to another. The horse trading is taking place within a budget cutting atmosphere where Gov. Jerry Brown has promised to close a budget gap of roughly $25 billion.
“I felt the proper committee was Accountability and Administrative Review,” said bill author Calderon, “because AB 1208 is an issue of governance, which is exactly the purview of that committee,” said Calderon. He also said he thought that committee more appropriate to hear his bill because it started the investigation into the judicial branch’s administrative agency and its mishandling of the IT project called the Court Case Management System.
“That was the committee that generated the legislative audit report that busted open the malfeasance on the CCMS project,” he said.
Opponents of AB 1208 have been pushing for delay by changing the bill’s timeline for consideration to two years. An internal committee of the Judicial Council, charged with taking positions on legislation, voted to oppose the bill late last month.
Two longtime members of the Judicial Council, Judge James Herman of Santa Barbara and Mike Roddy, head administrator in San Diego County Superior Court, are on that internal committee charged with legislation, and they have also been appointed by the new chief justice to sit on a newly created CCMS oversight commitee with Herman as the chair.
Calderon also said that while he had considered making AB 1208 a two-year bill, “that offer is no longer on the table. It was rejected by the Judicial Council. I was trying to find a solution that was acceptable to all parties that would also allow the chief justice some time to become familiar with the issue and make changes if necessary. It appeared to me to be the responsible thing to do, but the Judicial Council was not interested,” he said. “They’re willing to run the risk.”