LONG BEACH (CN) – Changing the way California’s trial courts are governed was the central issue at a Long Beach meeting of trial judges from around California, with a major session on Friday briefly erupting into shouted questions about who was behind an abortive attempt by the central administrative office to take over direct control of the trial court operations at the local level.
“There is a great angst within our branch on governance and how we’re governing ourselves,” said Judge Michael Vicencia of Los Angeles, who led the session called “Order in the Courts” about the future of California’s courts.
That angst, in particular the anger of many trial judges with the central administrators, soon showed itself in a question sent up to Vicencia.
A judge wanted to know about a bill in the Legislature that would have given central bureaucrats the power to appoint the head clerk of every local trial court, a measure that would have taken away much of the authority of local presiding judges to run their courthouses.
The questioner asked why the measure was drafted and who was behind the move.
From the panel at the front of the room, Appellate Justice Douglas Miller said Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter had withdrawn the bill because he had been blindsided by the proposal.
“Why was it drafted in the first place?” Judge Lance Ito of Los Angeles shouted out.
“Why don’t you have the answer?” shouted Judge Timothy Fall from Yolo County.
Vicencia tried to calm the waters, repeating the response from someone on the panel who said, “Order in the court!”
As moderator, Vicencia’s theme from the outset of the session was that he wanted to avoid a complaint session and focus instead on proposals.
“It’s instances like that, that gives people the impression that the AOC was in charge,” he added, in reference to frequent theme of the conference, that it is a “perception” that the central bureaucrats are running the court system. Many trial judges say that perception is an accurate one.
Miller ultimately said he did not know why the measure was drafted, but knew the staff member responsible. He did not say who it was.
The session filled a large conference room with more than 100 judges in attendance. Officials from the central administrative office stood at the back of the room early in the session.
The 82d annual meeting of the California Judges Association was to last three days and included judge training sessions such as how to handle evidence from social media sites Facebook and Twitter, and documents found on the Internet. The meeting concluded Sunday with a question-and-answer session with Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
The get-together came at a time freighted with disagreement over how policy is set and money is spent in the courts. State Representative Bonnie Lowenthal, Democrat from Long Beach, was on the panel at Friday’s session.
Referring to efforts to fix the problems in the courts with legislation, she said that one thing her experience had taught her is that “You don’t want to have it done to you.”
Lowenthal pressed on the difference between internal matters of policy at the courts and the handling of public money, which is disbursed by the Legislature.
She said a recent proposal favored by many trial judges and trial courts as a whole, called the trial court bill of rights, involved matters best handled within the judicial branch. “If the Legislature sees mismanagement,” she warned. “that’s another thing.”
A table at the entrance to the conference room was weighed down by stacks of 137-page compendia of survey answers from trial courts around the state. The answers suggested that the belief that the Administrative Office of the Courts runs the show is widespread and specific.
“Rarely is there a vote by the Council rejecting staff recommendations; indeed, there almost never serious questioning of those recommendations,” wrote Presiding Judge Michael Bush from Bakersfield, in Kern County. “Watching and listening to to Judicial Council meetings leads one to the conclusion that the Council is the captive and does not seriously oversee the AOC.”
Moving to a controversial IT project called the Court Case Management System, Bush said, “This lack of oversight has led to problems such as CCMS.”
The project is years behind schedule at a cost many times greater than planned, said the judge, for a project “that may well benefit the AOC but is of marginal value to most trial courts. Yet it is trial court funding that has been siphoned off, without permission, to pay for it.”
The project has continued to generate controversy. This summer administrators said it would be “paused.” But that was changed a month ago when administrators said the IT project, which has been outsourced to Deloitte Consulting, was not being paused but was in fact being continued, at a further cost of $76 million.
Referring to the administrative office’s oversight of the project, Lowenthal said at Friday’s session, “We were astounded by the mismanagement and the terrible job Deloitte had done.”
On the panel with Lowenthal was Los Angeles Presiding Judge Lee Edmon who said of the 137-page handout, “It’s clear from the responses we got that there’s a basic loss of trust and confidence throughout the state with the Judicial Council.”
She noted the push toward uniformity as a main contributor to the strained relationship between the courts and central bureaucrats.
“One thing that adds to the tensions is that 13 years ago we were a lot of independent counties doing our own thing. We’ve gone more and more towards centralization,” she said. “A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.”
“Is it time to take a pause and go to some form of decentralization?” she asked. The past 13 years, almost of all of it under the former chief justice, Ron George, involved two principal elements, uniformity of rules in the various courts and centralized funding for all the courts.
Edmon said the uniformity of rules is a good idea. Opting for general language, she added, “Some things don’t work on a statewide centralized basis.”
Referring to the state’s budget crisis and its effect on the courts, Judge David Rosenberg from Yolo County, who sat on the panel with Edmon, said, “When times are good you don’t hear a lot of criticism. When times are bad the criticism is brought to the fore.”
Rosenberg argued that the Judicial Council, made up of judges and administrators and chaired by the chief justice, has taken strides toward change in recent months by taking a more active role in the decisions that affect the courts. “My sense is that the Judicial Council has started to assume a proper role vis-a-vis staff. There’s always tension between a body and staff and the body has to assert itself,” he said. “The AOC is starting to understand.”
Along with dissatisfaction with the administrators, there was substantial question within the session about how the members of the Judicial Council are chosen. They are currently appointed by the chief justice, and there was a strong suggestion at the session that some council members should be chosen by vote from within the trial judges.
One of the questions texted to Vicencia’s cell phone asked why the chief justice should continue to be in charge of appointing judicial council members, in a time when many judges feel the council does not listen to the concerns of the courts. “Why simply trust the chief justice to appoint a judicial council that will listen?” the judge asked.
Miller replied that council members should take a broader view, rather than representing the interests of individual courts.
While Miller said he didn’t disagree that the courts should have more autonomy, he pointed to the changes already being made within the branch. “We have a new chief justice, new members of the judicial council and changes at the AOC,” he said. He pointed out the recent opening of council meetings that had been previously closed to the public, as well as extended periods for public comment at meetings. “I could go on and on,” he said.
The chief justice has also formed a Strategic Evaluation Committee this year to investigate the work done by the administrative office and how it can better serve the courts. But news that the committee’s report is not expected until next year was disheartening to many judges.
Vicencia told the panel, “There’s a perception that nothing is changing. That people have expected a lot of change with the new chief justice but nothing has changed.”
Edmon answered, “There are lots of changes we can make right away. We don’t need to wait a year for the SEC to finish its work. To be an effective branch we need to have strong, independent, local trial courts.”