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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Trial Court Rule Changes Seen as Power Grab

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Trial judges this week attacked a proposal by California's court administrators to take power away from the top judge in a trial court in favor of the top bureaucrat in what the judges characterized as a move to "usurp the power of the trial court," an invasion of "the right of the trial courts to manage their own affairs" and "the nose of the camel under the tent."

The rule changes would alter words that clearly define the role of the presiding judge as the top authority in running the court, and change them to say the presiding judge shares that authority with the head bureaucrat, formerly called the clerk and now called the court executive officer.

"As an alternative, convert the office of PJ into something akin to the British Monarchy," suggested Judge Runston Maino in San Diego. "Dress the PJ in some sort of a fancy dress, give him or her a title, and have them sign documents that are of no import."

In Los Angeles, former federal prosecutor and former presiding judge Stephen Czuleger said, "It's the nose of the camel under the tent."

In Sacramento, Presiding Judge Steve White said, "There is no purpose for this proposal except to insinuate the AOC further into control of the trial courts."

The rule changes proposed by the Administrative Office of the Courts would alter the California Rules of Court and would take effect in July. They come from two committees, one made up of presiding judges, one made up of court bureaucrats.

The changes would strike out the words "direction" in the rule that says the court administrator acts "under the direction" of the presiding judge. As amended, the rule change would say the administrator works "under the general oversight" of the presiding judge.

A second change would put the administrator in charge of technology systems at the courthouse, in itself a separate and volatile issue.

The head of the California Judges Association argued that the rule changes are "non-substantive."

"It seems to me far-fetched to say that some court executive officer is going to engage in a course of conduct contrary to what his or her court wants them to do," said Judge Keith Davis in San Bernardino. "I have a very difficult time envisioning such a result."

Davis said he did not want to pass judgment on the issue of whether the rule changes run contrary to legislation defining the power of the local courts. He added that his organization did not submit written comments on the proposal because his group does not object to the changes.

On the other side of the issue, another group of judges critical of the spending and expansionist policies of the statewide bureaucrats sent written objections to the proposed rule.

"A rule should not be established which strips trial court judges of even supervisory authority in the management of their courts," said the letter from the Alliance of California Judges.

They add that the changes are contrary to state statutory law.


"The requirement that a court must employ an executive officer, as well as the substitution of the term 'general oversight' (for 'direction') by the presiding judge, necessarily dictates to the individual trial courts how they must conduct their daily operations," said the Alliance's letter. "This effectively grants to a statewide agency the ability to manage the daily operations of 58 courts."

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was not available for comment.

Her spokesperson said it would be premature for the justice to comment because she chairs the Judicial Council which will ultimately decide whether to approve the proposed rule changes.

Czuleger in Los Angeles said that if he could talk to the chief justice, he would ask her to "not sacrifice the legitimate needs of local courts in favor of a power grab from the AOC."

That theme was echoed by White in Sacramento.

"The AOC has charted a trajectory to usurp the powers of the courts." He said that he and other presiding judges had been involved in talks with the AOC over the proposed rule changes, and said he had expressed "extreme opposition to the whole venture."

Maino in San Diego belongs to both the critical alliance of judges and the non-objecting association of judges. He submitted his own written objections to the proposed rule changes.

In an email, he added, "My opinion is that if presiding judges do not wish to lead the court and take responsibility for what happens but would rather turn this over to a court executive officer it would be a good idea to abolish the position of PJ. I would be shocked if the PJs of this state would agree to the huge shift of power."

Staff members for about 15 presiding judges around California were contacted, from Del Norte and Trinity counties near the Oregon border to Mariposa County in the Sierra Nevada foothills to San Joaquin County in the Central Valley. But the presiding judges in those counties were either unavailable or declined an interview request.

An official statement from the presiding judges' committee on the Judicial Council, however, promotes the rule changes as a move to foster "collaboration."

"The proposed amendments clarify and harmonize the duties of the presiding judge and court executive officer, where appropriate, resulting in improved collaboration among trial leadership," said the statement.

Behind the proposal lies a history.

A similar but stronger proposal was put forward by the administrators three years ago, according to Czuleger. That earlier effort was abandoned for reasons that were not explained. He said the campaign by the central authority of the administrators to increase control over the local trial courts is likely to continue.

"Once they've stuck their toe in the water, I'd anticipate that they'd want to do more," he said.

The rule changes also link the issue of the administrators' power with a separate effort to install a common computer system for case management throughout the state. The changes refer obliquely to that IT project saying the court executive officer, or CEO, will be granted the authority to "employ adequate technology to further the mission of the court."

For years, the statewide administrators have paid Deloitte Consulting hundreds of millions to develop the statewide computer system called the Court Case Management System. That system, projected to cost $1.3 billion, is facing a fiscal audit in the legislature which is due next Wednesday.

At the same time, newly-elected Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a $200 million cut in the overall budget for California's courts in 2011-2012, on top of shortfalls that caused many courts to close their doors on some days and lay off court employees.

Referring to the expensive computer system, Sacramento's Judge White said earlier audits had directed the statewide administrators to obtain consent from all the trial courts.

White argued that the bureaucrats were trying to cover their bets, in the event that the trial judges would not agree to install an IT system that has been criticized by the intake clerks who work with it as complex, time consuming and burdensome. If they could not gain consent from the judges, the bureaucrats could go around the judges by requiring the hiring of a CEO, as the new rules do, and then putting the computer system in the hands of the CEO, as the new rules would also do.

"This is an example of the Administrative Office of the Courts doubling-down, because it's unable to make the case on its merits," said White, talking about the CCMS computer system. "It is yet another effort to force CCMS on independent constitutional officers of the trial courts, irrespective of its lack of merit."

Judge Maino added, "This is a very dangerous rule in the hands of a CEO and is a backhanded way to force a court to adopt CCMS."

The statewide administrators and their computer system have come under a volley of fire from judges in the last few weeks over continued spending during a time of fiscal crisis for the trial courts and California as a whole. Recently, the administrators moved to hire 18 contract employees to manage the computer system at an annual cost for some of the workers of up to $232,000 each.

They also voted to recommend retroactive salary increases of 3.5 percent for most of the administrators, raises that went into effect with the current budget.

And in December, they transferred roughly $240 million from trial court funds, much of it to fund the big technology project.

"The AOC has an insatiable appetite for resources to the detriment of the courts," said White in Sacramento.

Judge Czuleger in Los Angeles saw the current move to change the court rules as the foreshadowing of a future power struggle.

"The AOC is determined to aggrandize their own authority at all expense," he said. "It just sucks up as much authority as it can, sometimes legally, sometimes beyond what they're authorized to do."

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