SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s court leadership is taking the offensive against its critics, bringing a reaction equally as powerful from judges and legislators. The most recent clash has been played out on the editorial pages of the San Diego Union Tribune, where a trial judge first said the judiciary’s system of governance is broken, followed by an answer from an appellate justice who said trial judges are trying to establish separate fiefdoms, which in turn brought a rebuke from a powerful legislator who said judiciary leaders are displaying “arrogance.”
In an opinion piece published a week ago titled “A Judicial Hierarchy out of Control,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan said the judiciary’s leadership has lost the confidence of California’s public as exemplified in its continuing campaign to push a botched IT system on local courts.
“Under the mantra of statewide administration, we have allowed an unaccountable bureaucracy to hold sway over our judges,” said the opinion piece published in the San Diego Union Tribune.
That opinion was answered this week by a blast of a letter from Appellate Justice Richard Huffman, also published in the Tribune and aimed at a group of trial judges who are challenging the top brass of the courts. He said those judges are trying to take California’s courts backwards.
“Horan and a few others are capitalizing on legitimate concerns about local control,” said Huffman’s letter, adding that “disaffected judges” are seeking to “return to the days of separate judicial fiefdoms.”
That letter brought criticism from longtime legislator Charles Calderon (D-Montebello) who is sponsoring a bill to return power to individual local courts and their head judges. That transfer of power would reduce the influence of the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Judicial Council, the two bodies that currently determine statewide policy for the courts.
“I think Judge Horan has very legitimate concerns,” said Calderon in an interview.
As a member of the Judicial Council years ago and the longest-serving member of both the state Assembly and Senate, Calderon says he has watched the bureaucratic takeover of the courts. Last month, Calderon introduced AB 1208, the “Trial Court Rights Act,” that intends to decentralize judicial power and hand more responsibility to head judges in individual courts.
Under AB 1208, judges will be in charge major funding decisions for their own courts.
“I don’t see how the courts could be more bureaucratized than they are now,” said Calderon. “1,100 bureaucrats comprise the AOC. It has become so bureaucratic that the AOC officials make decisions right down to the light bulbs and what clock should be replaced.”
“And so it can’t get anymore bureaucratic,” Calderon continued, “and the only thing that can happen with my legislation is there will be less bureaucracy and more self-determination in terms of representing the communities that elect them.”
Clashes within the judicial branch have been galvanized by a $1.9 billion IT system, called the Court Case Management System, which trial judges and legislators have criticized as unwieldy and exorbitantly expensive.
State Auditor Elaine Howle released a report last month revealing mismanagement and waste on the part of the AOC in development of the computer system which it has largely handed off to a private contractor. The AOC in its turn unveiled a cost-benefit analysis of the system by accounting firm Grant Thornton, which Howle then critiqued, saying it was based on unrealistic assumptions.
In his opinion piece for the Tribune, Judge Horan focused on the state auditor’s findings and referred to the judicial leadership’s reaction as “flapdoodle.”
“After an exhaustive investigation, the state auditor delivered her conclusion last month,” said Horan’s opinion piece. The judiciary’s leadership, he said, “had completely botched the largest information technology project in California history.”
Horan is part of the Alliance of California Judges, a group that numbers roughly 300 judges. He said the group was formed to address precisely the problems that are now coming to the fore.
“The computerized system may be but the tip of the icebergNo one has yet conducted an audit of the Administrative Office $1,100 to $1,700 per-square-foot construction projects, as but one example,” said Horan.
The reaction of the state’s administrators was as disturbing as the auditor’s findings, he added.
“Confronted with 138 pages documenting years of mismanagement, misrepresentations, scripted responses to criticism and an absence of Judicial Council oversight, the Administrative Office and Judicial Council responded with a scripted video produced by the Administrative Office’s own phony `New Bureau’ which reassured us that all was well, and that any problems would somehow be solved simply by its director, William Vickrey, creating a new committee,” he wrote.
“After roughly 24 hours of repeating this flapdoodle,” said Horan, “they proclaimed that they were now ‘ready to move on.'”
The judges and the people of California need to face the larger truth, he said.
“Our judicial governance structure is broken. Some of our leaders appear arrogant, and others too accustomed to power one has served on the council for 14 years.”
“I experienced this arrogance last year in the Judicial Council chamber as I watched our former chief justice imperiously silence a judge who sought to speak a few sentences about our governance problems. The judge had traveled to San Francisco at his own expense to deliver a pre-submitted and preapproved statement (a requirement of the Judicial Council, lest an upsetting word slip into that rarefied air). Not one council member spoke up to defend this judge’s right to speak.”
“On that day,” said Horan, “when not 30 seconds would be given a judge to air concerns shared by hundreds of judges, the Judicial Council did find time to unanimously pass a motion that the Administrative Office of the Courts be given an award for exemplary service to the public.”
In his answering letter to the Tribune, Justice Huffman said the true purpose of the trial judges in the Alliance is to undo an array of changes made by the former chief justice, Ronald George. “Horan and a few others are capitalizing on legitimate concerns about local control and the management of a statewide case-management system to undo these reforms.”
While Huffman does not define the reforms, he is likely referring to changes over the years that centralized control and finances through a central body of administrators, changes that proponents say bring consistency within court rules and a rationalization of finances and that opponents say have in fact brought insularity and fiscal disaster.
“Without these reforms,” said Huffman’s letter, “we would not be planning a critically needed courthouse for downtown San Diego to replace a seismically unsafe structure.” That sentence refers to another controversy involving the central court administration where trial judges, particularly in Los Angeles, were pushing to hold off on new construction while operating budgets are being squeezed and local trial courts are facing brutal layoffs.
Huffman then took direct aim at the Alliance.
“Horan, along with a handful of others, claim they represent hundreds of judges, whose names are kept secret from the public and the rest of the judicial branch,” said Huffman who then claimed the mantle of legitimacy for himself and others at the top. “Those of us on the Judicial Council – the policymaking body of the judicial branch – and the California Judges Association truly represent judges.”
Huffman, who had a reputation as a champion for the former chief justice, also accuses the Alliance judges of refusing to join committees, as urged by the new chief of California’s courts. “Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has asked disaffected judges to join hundreds of other volunteer judges to participate in the many committees the Judicial Council relies on to make its decisions,” Huffman wrote.
Taking another shot at the Alliance, he added, “They have declined to participate because their membership is secret.”
“Instead,” said the justice, “they are directly lobbying our legislators to undo the reforms that took many years of hard work and careful thought,” he concluded. “If the reforms are undone, we will return to the days of separate judicial fiefdoms and less judicial accountability, and the very real possibility that residents and attorneys will experience very different rules, procedures and access from one jurisdiction to the next.”
But Horan had already addressed the issue of membership in the leadership’s committees, saying, “We will support efforts to democratize the Judicial Council. For far too long, a small, insular minority of favored judges have allowed the Administrative Office to hide behind our robes. It is time for that to stop, and it will.”
Calderon agreed that the leadership is out of touch, saying, “I served on the Judicial Council in 1995-96, so I agree with the characterization that the Judicial Council is comprised of a small insular group of favored judges.”
Jumping into the fray, a San Diego trial court judge also returned Huffman’s cannonade.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Dan Goldstein said, “Justice Huffman, a long standing appointee and advocate of the Judicial Council of California, personally attacks Judge Charles Horan and his view that the bureaucracy Justice Huffman has led for nearly 14 years is in need of reform. Nowhere does Justice Huffman account for the waste and mismanagement that the Bureau of State Audits, Legislators, Court employees and hundreds of Judges across the State have rallied against.”
Goldstein continued, “At the Judicial Council’s direction the branch is scheduled to engage in the expenditure of at least $1.9 billion, for a flawed computer system that the Judicial Council never obtained any independent funding to create. The money for this system has come from trial court operations partially causing closures, layoffs and furloughs.
He added, “While I have been a judge going on nine years, I have also been a Management Professor over two decades. I know what would happen to a board of directors at any corporation if they engaged in conduct similar to this. This money belongs to the taxpayers and, as pointed out by Judge Horan, should only be spent carefully and responsibly.”
Speaking from the state legislature, Calderon said Justice Huffman’s letter signals the judicial bureaucracy’s fear of survival amidst intense criticism from judges and legislators. “Talk about circling the wagons,” he said. “They’ve been acting a lot like a bureaucracy that has been threatened and think their survival is on the line. And they’re doing it with such arrogance.”
Calderon was referring to Huffman’s letter, combined with Appellate Justice Terence Bruiniers’ recent reaction to the state auditor’s critique of Grant Thornton’s cost-benefit analysis of the IT project.
Said Calderon, “This justice attacking the trial court judge’s stance, another justice who then comes out and attacks the auditor and is literally saying that an international firm, who we’re paying by the way, is much more credible than the auditor this statement in this context sounds so out of touch.”