Twilight Zone

     At an informal event, I told a San Diego judge that I had asked the courts’ central administrative office for an organization chart, a common business document that lays out who does what.
     “You’ll never get it,” said the judge. “Because it would look like this.”
     He quickly drew a set of imaginary circles round and round on the patio table in front of him, like a manic child scribbling with crayon.
     And he was right. We never got it.
     The same with a whole bunch of documents we have asked for, despite the administrative office’s pledge of transparency.
     So it was with a wry familiarity that I read Maria Dinzeo’s article on a similar attempt by Sacramento Judge Kevin McCormick who was trying to find out how many people work for the administrative office, what they do, and how much they are paid.
     He was in essence asking for an organization chart, with salaries attached.
     “I am directing Bill to have the AOC promptly comply with your request,” wrote Justice Arthur Scotland who heads the committee of judges working on an overhaul of the administrative office. Scotland was referring to Bill Vickrey, the head of the Administrative Office of the Courts who is leaving next month, for good.
     That instruction seems real specific and real clear. It should work.
     But it didn’t.
     I went back in my mind’s eye to the circles on the patio table. Who knows who works for who in that agency or where the authority lies.
     It’s like chasing a dancing will o’ the wisp. You think you see it. But then you don’t.
     A clear request for information bleeds out into departments with hazy mandates, individuals you can’t reach and a slow, stifling non-response made up of delay, misdirection and partial answers that stretch into simple blank nothingness.
     In the end, you are no closer to knowing how things are organized than you were when you started.
     You still don’t know who is doing what and you don’t know where the money is coming from or where it is all going. It gets shifted from one fund to another, and eventually there is none left.
     All you know is that the top officials are themselves paid handsomely and have a sweetheart of a top-loaded retirement deal that is outlawed in the federal system.
     And then you know that some courts in California seem to have money and some courts have next to none. And you wonder why.
     Judge McCormick’s experience was the short track of that ride into the Twilight Zone of government.
     “The AOC’s refusal to provide ANY information in compliance with the request, its failure to adequately communicate, the apparent reluctance to divulge specifics of the AOC’s actual size and growth rate, and the dismissive language,” wrote the judge, “are all classic examples of why many judges throughout the state perceive the AOC to be bloated, overly bureaucratic and inefficient.”
     So after the top fellow who is leaving the agency was told to answer the question, another fellow who is also leaving the agency gives a partial answer.
     But it’s half the loaf. It’s a stall.
     Gatekeeper Ken Kann, who like Vickrey is on his way out, gives the judge a partial list of those working for the agency. It does not include the contractors who, unlike low-paid temp workers, are paid lots and lots of money.
     “Are you seriously telling me,” asks the incredulous judge, “that the AOC has grown to be so expansive and unwieldy that in order to provide information identifying who works for your agency it takes over a month?”
     The agency’s reply is a classic.
     It takes an arch tone. It uses big words that mean nothing, saying the agency has “provided responsive information and clarification” when it has in fact done neither.
     It says that the agency is trying to to satisfy his “remaining requests” when it was just one simple request to begin with. And then it “estimates” makes sure, in other words, not to commit that the judge will receive a full list by August 22.
     By then, of course, the judge is out of time.
     He was trying to answer a survey by Justice Scotland’s overhaul committee and the August 9 deadline for that answer had come and gone, and he could not include a list of who actually works for the agency, what they do and how much they are paid.
     Just to be sure, because I knew the answer, I thought we should check with McCormick on whether he had ever been provided with the full list. Because August 22 is now well past.
     “No…. still waiting….,” wrote the judge.
     Welcome to my world.

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