When the AOC Is Gone

     Recently Tehama County Superior Court’s Presiding Judge Richard Scheuler authored an editorial in the Daily Journal titled, “Small Courts Rely on AOC Services.”
     The editorial was a rebuttal to comments by Judge Robert Dukes of the Los Angeles Superior Court that appeared days earlier in the Courthouse News service, which Judge Scheuler mischaracterized as a “blog,” though it is a fully-staffed national news service that has been doing business since the 1990s.
     Scheuler took issue with Dukes’s assessment of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as a bloated and not terribly useful or productive bureaucracy.
     Judge Scheuler oversees a court consisting of four judges and a commissioner, and roughly 45 full time employees. His editorial argued that small courts like Tehama simply could not function without the help of the AOC.
     He made similar points to the Courthouse News Service on 1/27/12, when he voiced his concern that “the forces that oppose the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts oppose centralization, without which small courts could not survive.”
     I do not come from Tehama, but I note that Judge Scheuler’s court has existed since 1860, or thereabouts, and for roughly the first 120 years of that period there was no AOC and there was absolutely no centralized governance of the 58 county trial courts.
     Yet somehow Tehama’s court survived.
     Now, however, Judge Scheuler believes that his court must depend on the AOC for almost everything — judicial training, contract drafting, legal advice, financial oversight, lawsuit defense, financial services, labor negotiation, legal compliance “support” (AOC audits), technology support, assistance in dealing with “justice partners,” backfilling for judges away at AOC mandated training, and “much, much more.”
     Not to mention the new $72 million courthouse he candidly hopes the AOC will provide — at roughly twice the per-square-foot cost of courthouses built in New York City.
     Why are five bench officers and 45 employees incapable of handling the court’s business in a county of 60,000 residents? Why must services be centralized in order to be affordable and available?
     Scheuler doesn’t even attempt to answer these questions, apparently simply assuming that centralization is always a positive attribute of governance. That some AOC services are necessary is undoubtedly the case. However, small courts have traditionally handled all of the functions above, and more.
     Why is the 150 year old Tehama Superior Court now content to have its affairs largely managed by a central bureaucracy? Why can’t Tehama hire people to perform tasks now done by the AOC or contract out for those services?
     The answer is quite clear: The AOC has bled the courts, including Tehama, bone dry.
     While our budgets are being relentlessly cut due to a horrible economy, the agency Judge Schueler describes as “stupendous” took hundreds of millions from the Trial Court Trust Fund for a computer system that the judges of this state didn’t want, didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
     (Hypocritically, at the same time the AOC was tossing a half billion dollars down the drain, and lobbying against a CCMS audit, it performed an audit of the Tehama court, which was published on-line in May 2011. The AOC auditors chastised the court for, among other things, violating an AOC policy by buying sandwiches and soft drinks for non-sequestered jurors. Tehama promised to do better.)
     At the same it was spending trial court operating funds at a breathtaking rate, the AOC shoved its way into every aspect of statewide court operations it could, both to increase its power and its staff — 20 years ago, the AOC had 200 employees, and in recent times has had over 1000, though it has been chronically dishonest about the true number of employees.
     That Scheuler now feels incapable of handling his court’s affairs for the benefit of his constituents without constant intervention and oversight by the AOC is exactly the problem — centralization has led to dependence, which has morphed into subservience, taking power from those elected to wield it and responsibility from those chosen to shoulder it.
     Instead, both power and responsibility have devolved to unelected and wholly unaccountable bureaucrats.
     “Stupendous” is not a word I would use to describe the situation where bureaucrats are empowered and elected constitutional officers perceive themselves as dependent upon them for survival. I call it intolerable.
     Former Chief Justice Ron George, the chief architect of our current governance structure, believed that “economies of scale” would enable a central bureaucracy to save money on everything from CCMS to court construction to routine courthouse maintenance, and that the current model would guarantee an “adequate and stable” source of funding.
     Experience has shown the opposite — chewing gum removal and light bulb replacement costs thousands of dollars, $200 million computer systems cost $1.9 billion and have to be abandoned midway through, and courthouses are overpriced even in the planning stage.
     California Department of Finance Director Ana Matosantos noted in May that, “A fundamental reorganization of the court structure carried out under former Chief Justice Ron George had exacerbated the financial difficulty for the courts.” (Courthouse News Service, May 14, 2012).
     More and more judges refuse to see themselves as helpless and are awakening to the fact that the price of centralization has been the subjugation of our courts by bureaucrats and handpicked members of the Judicial Council, a financial crisis in the judiciary, and deep schisms among judges.
     A mix of large, medium, and small courts support the passage of AB 1208, a bill sponsored by the over 400 members of the Alliance of California Judges that would mandate that funds delivered to the trial courts not be captured by the AOC.
     Los Angeles, with over 450 judges, Sacramento with 53, Kern with 35, San Mateo with 23 all have endorsed the bill. Mariposa and Amador, each with two judges, were early supporters of AB 1208, not sharing Judge Scheuler’s notion that only a central bureaucracy will allow small courts to thrive.
     AB 1208 would, at a minimum, allow courts to keep that which is allocated to them by the legislature, without AOC holdbacks.
     Courts would still be free to contract for services with the AOC if they wished — then the AOC could compete for trial court dollars just like any other vendor.
     For that matter, there is absolutely nothing to prevent courts from forming consortiums and other cooperative agreements for training, legal assistance, and purchasing of services, whether from the AOC, from vendors, or from one another.
     The judges of this state are remarkable people. Most are talented, hard-working, and inventive. It’s time they get busy and retake responsibility for the future of their courts, which existed before the AOC, and will exist long after the AOC is gone.
     Charles Horan is a retired Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and was a founding Director of the Alliance of California Judges

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