Which One’s Next?

     Walking home after editing a story on the money shortage for California’s courts, it crossed my mind that the court system could be compared to the European Union.
     San Francisco’s court could be compared to Greece, the first of the dominos to tumble.
     “San Francisco may have been the first trial court to fall,” San Francisco’s presiding judge, Katherine Feinstein, told the Judicial Council last week. “But I know that others are soon to follow, and you know that too.”
     So which one is next.
     Which court will be California’s Portugal, the next one that has to take radical measures such as closing courtrooms and laying off hundreds of staff.
     Maybe Ventura fits that bill.
     The court bit on a boondoggle of an IT system pushed by the bureaucrats. But it got no help, as I understand it, in paying for the overtime that came with the new system.
     Which trial court would be Spain, so big that its tumble would shake the whole system. Would that be one of the big Southern California counties.
     And will the courts on the edge get any help from the “plush” and “palatial” headquarters of the bureaucracy, using the words of Sacramento’s trial judges.
     Or will those courts be allowed to go down and down through the waters of insolvency without a hand extended from the folks that now act as the courts’ central banker.
     Feinstein, who is the daughter of California’s senior senator, was saying she did not get much help. In fact, she says she got none at all.
     “I was stunned that neither I, nor our court executive officer, received a single phone call from anyone in the Administrative Office of the Courts the entity that is supposed to provide services and support to the trial courts.”
     I found it stunning that Feinstein, an elected judge and the leader of San Francisco’s court system, speaks to the council under a time limit and as a member of the public, like the nervous bus driver from Nevada County who told the council that a new courthouse was not necessary, that the old one just needed to be fixed up.
     By contrast, administrators who are not elected and who don’t have a legal background sit as members of the council and, without limitation, offer their opinions and debate matters of statewide court policy.
     I asked our reporter, Maria Dinzeo, what the mood was like at Friday’s meeting, tense, urgent, acrimonious.
     She said it was somber around the council table. The only time it got tense was when the Los Angeles judges wanted to take more from the construction funds in order to keep the courts open.
     Administrators argued against stopping their building projects, saying it would send the wrong message to the Legislature. Thereby, they implicitly argued that closed courtrooms would send the right message a kind of punishment perhaps for those bad legislators who took the money away.
     “We’ll leave no message except that we were able to keep the courtrooms open in order to have the Legislature take more money from us,” argued San Diego’s head clerk who is longtime council member.
     Dinzeo said the mood became tense at that point because the two L.A. judges were beleaguered, arguing alone, unsupported and indeed opposed by the rest of the council.
     I thought that was strange, that you have a judicial system in the nation’s biggest state, where individual courts are teetering on the edge of insolvency, where a major court has already fallen, where an enormous bureaucracy is recommending that next year it should be cut only as much as the staggering trial courts, and the large majority thinks building new buildings is a good idea.
     The result of the council’s deliberations is that the judicial branch will go ahead with new construction while existing courtrooms go dark, while justice is delayed and delayed further, and while the system bleeds into dysfunction.
     The reason the legislators cut the money in the first place was because, according to their statements beforehand, California as a whole was short and the legislators were mad at the way the court administrators had been blowing money.
     When the court bureaucracy did not reform its spendthrift ways, legislators warned repeatedly, “We have the power of the purse.” Speaking of messages between the courts and the Legislature, how did that one not get delivered.
     So now the administrators are sending their message back to the Legislature.
     Does it say, we have reformed our spending ways and we should have at least some of our funds restored. Or does it invite the Legislature to pull even more money out of the court building funds, until they are bone dry.
     “I am unable to comprehend the actions the Council took by favoring their bureaucracy over a failing trial court and the message of other court’s that they are also having problems,” a judge told me.
     “That only two council members stood up to the staff recommendations is shameful,” he added. “So much for branch-wide leadership by the council members. They are seemingly deaf to the concerns raised the past year by judges, legislators and the public.”
     “The Chief said she wanted everyone to give her a chance,” the judge concluded. “We did.

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