What’s In a Name

     I was editing a story last month where court administrative director Steve Jahr was quoted supporting the abandonment of his own agency’s name.
     It was the director unbound. I did not know he was so quotable.
     His comments highlighted the absurdity that surrounds many policy decisions recommended by a coterie of officials from the Administrative Office of the Courts and pushed past judges on the Judicial Council.
     “Retiring the name AOC will produce a perceptual change, or perhaps a cultural change,” he told the council. “Yet under the substantive law, it makes no change at all.”
     It could be this, or it could be that, but really, it is nothing at all.
     I told the article’s author, Maria Dinzeo, that we should quote the director more regularly. She said she had never heard him speak with such freedom.
     Indeed, something had changed.
     The director’s ability to speak outside the jargon and double-talk of his bureaucracy was a flashing sign that he was already outside of it. A couple days later, his retirement was announced.
     While the Administrative Office of the Courts no longer exists, its officials, its offices, its policies remain. They are now referred to as the staff of the Judicial Council.
     At first impression, I considered the gambit just another move in the game of hide-and-seek the administrative officials have played in the past.
     Years ago, when I first began delving into the Cheshire Cat body of bureaucrats behind the disastrous software project called the Court Case Management System, I wanted to understand what made the system tick — what allowed them to dominate the administration of trial courts that adopted CCMS, how they acquired the arrogance to try and take the power to hire the court clerk away from the presiding judge, how they succeeded in putting information systems in the hands of the clerks by rule, and why the result of such hubris was a trashing of press access.
     At the time, I asked officials who on paper worked for the Judicial Council what was the difference between working for the administrative office and working for the council. The response was that they all worked for the same person, then-director William Vickrey. He was the “boss.”
     So I figured the council was under the boss, was the boss’s puppet.
     That impression was confirmed two summers ago when the council decided to put a hold on the software project that had racked up nearly a half-billion dollars in expense. The very next council session, the staff came back and said there was no hold, and the project was going ahead.
     The obvious conclusion was that a vote by the council meant nothing, unless the staff agreed. Indeed, it meant the staff members could override the council, as they had just done.
     Coming back to the present, what difference would it make if the staff changed its name from the AOC to the staff of the Judicial Council. They would still run the show.
     So I was surprised at the reaction in the Legislature, which was clearly favorable. In addition, judges who have been strong critics of the administrative office agreed with the abandonment of the name and the idea of a separate administrative office.
     Maybe, just maybe, the name change was more than a sleight of hand, more than a mere matter of perception.
     In that case, what might the future hold?
     First, the council would be held responsible for hundreds of bureaucrats and the ideas they come up with. That accountability would in turn lead to scrutiny of the how the council works and how the committees, many of them now theoretically open to the press, decide on matters to push up to the council.
     That scrutiny in turn would lead to questions about how the council is selected and that in turn would lead to the real and only source of power in the whole set-up, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who picks the council members, leads council deliberations and ultimately directs the staff.
     That focus could well lead to a better understanding of how the council works and an assignment of responsibility for the results.

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