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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Trojan Horse

I asked a trial judge the other day if he thought California's Administrative Office of the Courts had been reformed, as judicial leaders proclaim.

"Not a bit," was his answer. "In fact their position has hardened."

A recent experience on the press side says he's right.

During the time of former AOC director William Vickrey, a man viscerally disliked by many trial judges, Courthouse News commented on a trial court manual written by Vickrey's staff.

Our comment said that newly filed court documents should be openly and immediately accessible to the press. We had run into consistent delays in the few trial courts that had adopted a ruinously expensive and cumbersome software pushed by the director.

Vickrey's answer was that court documents are "pre-filed" until the bureaucrats have processed them, an increasingly lengthy set of tasks that often ends with posting them online for sale.

But "pre-filed" was a made-up concept. The cases are in fact filed when they cross the counter and are stamped -- which is before all that processing.

To give you an idea of how long "processing" can stretch out, in Sacramento Superior, those tasks have been taking about one month.

Imagine a journalist trying to write a news story on an election or a ball game one month after the event. It is old news by then, a piece of history.

So that exchange took place in 2010, before the state Auditor revealed financial mismanagement at the administrative office and its $500 million software project had to be junked.

Vickrey then retired and his longtime lobbyist Curt Child became the head of operations last year. A committee of judges recommended hundreds of changes, staff was cut back, and the agency was said to be reformed.

Now to the present.

The administrative office is proposing e-filing rules that are being pushed by the very same administrators who pushed the financially disastrous and now abandoned software.

Lo and behold. Inserted into those rules is a Trojan Horse.

It takes the form of a new definition. A document is "officially filed," according to the new rules, only after "processing" and "reviewing."

Processing and review is entirely in the hands of the bureaucrats. Could be a day, could be two days, could be a month.

The new definition has no stated purpose, but its potential is clear. It can be used to deny press access until a document is "officially filed" and thus an "official record."

Based on the similarity in Vickrey's attitude on press access three years ago, and the AOC's attitude now, I don't see a reformed outfit.

It could still be run by Vickrey who said new cases are "pre-filed" until they are processed. Same idea, slightly different words.

Now, all this gamesmanship reminded me of something.

Los Angeles Judge Lance Ito has been banging away on the judicial leadership in California to reveal the truth behind an old gambit.

In 2009, the AOC tried to railroad through the Legislature a little change in wording that had big consequences. The changed wording would have taken away the power of trial judges to vote on their presiding judge and pick their local court clerk.

It was placed into the legislative sessions's trailer bill, the kind of bill that would revolt the public if they ever saw how it worked. A trailer bill is a furious round of horse-trading, with no deliberation, tied to passage of the yearly budget.

That trailer bill provision was also a Trojan Horse.

It was pushed quietly into a much larger measure and it would have undermined the power of trial judges to elect their leader and run their courthouse.

The closest that Ito and other trial judges could get to the underlying story was an admission that the language in the trailer bill originated with a second-rung staffer in the AOC's lobbying office.

It defies any political reality to say a second-rung staffer was in sole charge of a sweeping proposal that would abrogate the traditional political and administrative powers of California trial judges.

Ito refers to the matter as "a continuing cover-up."

The chain of command above that staffer ran through Child, then head lobbyist, and from him up to the former director, Vickrey. While Vickrey no longer heads the agency, Child is now the head of operations and many other positions of power, including general counsel, remain in the same hands.

And the tactics have not changed.

The Trojan Horse pushed into the trailer bill bears the same markings as the Trojan Horse wheeled into the e-filing rules.

The goal is very similar, to extend the bureaucracy's control, first over the trial judges and now the press. The method is the same, to do so through a quiet insertion of a few words into a larger omnibus proposal.

So does that look like a reformed agency.

"On goes the war," said the trial judge. "To the barricades!"

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