SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The release this week of comments from members of California’s biggest judges association reveals deep discontent with the Judicial Council’s oversight of the court bureaucracy which is perceived as “arrogant,” “bloated” and “elitist.”
“The Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts are arrogant and insular in the way that they govern the judicial branch,” says one judge. “Decisions are made by AOC administrators which are simply rubber-stamped by the Judicial Council.”
“There seem to be no governance by the Judicial Council of the AOC,” writes another judge, “but rather the AOC has been allowed to act totally independently. There is a complete lack of transparency.”
The California Judges Association polled its 2,000 plus members in March for their opinion on judicial branch leadership, as well as their stances on AB 1208, a bill now pending the state Assembly that is intended to restore the power of the purse to individual courts.
While the judges association decided to remain neutral on the bill due to a divided membership, a majority of the responding 877 judges supported the bill, and a much higher percentage said they were dissatisfied with the Judicial Council’s governance of the branch and oversight of its administrative agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
A summary quoting from the judges’ individual commments, many of them deeply critical, was included in a letter to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye sent Monday by the CJA’s president, Judge Keith Davis of San Bernardino.
Davis says in the letter that a prevalent theme in the comments was that many judges believe they do not have a voice on the Judicial Council, a body headed by the chief that decides on matters effecting courts statewide.
“The Judicial Council is perceived as an exclusive group unwilling to address the needs and concerns of California judges,” Davis writes. “Debate and discussion of contrary or competing ideas is highly discouraged, and those not in lock-step are publicly berated.”
Much of the commentary surrounds a $1.9 billion IT project called the Court Case Management System, an ambitious effort to link all state courts electronically. In recent months, CCMS has been called a boondoggle by judges who have seen courtrooms shut down and access to justice stalled by the state’s budget crisis. The Bureau of State Audits has also found the project was mismanaged from its inception over 10 years ago.
Courthouse News is reporting on comments from California’s trial courts tied to a separate survey conducted by the state auditor earlier this year, in a series of articles based on the courts in different regions of California. That survey by the state auditor is separate from the survey sent out by the judges association, but the results parallel one another.
In the survey by the judges association, many of the individual comments are tied to the issue of control. The CJA survey shows almost 62 percent of judges are dissatisfied with the council’s oversight of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the bureaucratic agency that controls spending, courthouse construction and a range of policy questions affecting the trial courts.
An even larger percentage fully 79 percent are dissatisfied with the judicial leadership’s oversight of the IT project generally known by its acronym CCMS.
“This bloating of the AOC and lack of oversight has resulted in out-of-control spending decisions, such as the CCMS situation. What has happened in regard to lack of fiscal and administrative oversight of CCMS is a huge problem for the judicial branch,” says the survey’s comment summary.
“It is clear that there was no substantive oversight of the CCMS project. Judicial branch problems all stem from the lack of oversight, of which CCMS is an embarrassing example. The State Audit Report of CCMS says it all, and reflects the huge financial mistakes resulting in no benefit to the branch. What may have started as a good idea, and now a complete waste,” another judge says.
Yet another notes, “There was a lack of proper budgeting, the cost overruns are terrible, and the public reports reflecting this mismanagement are an embarrassment to the judicial branch. Although this was a good concept, it has been a huge drain of fiscal resources with little benefits seen to date.”
The summary also reflects the growing discontent with the make-up of the council itself, its seeming lack of opposing viewpoints and its apparent partiality toward the central bureaucrats in the AOC.
“The Judicial Council should be more democratic and less elitist in its selection of members,” says one judge. “The exclusive selection process for election to the Judicial Council is believed to be designed so as to yield members who will simply accept, without question, the decisions of the Chief Justice and the leaders of the AOC. Expression of diverse viewpoints should be welcomed, but are not. Instead, opposing views are treated with either hostility or indifference.”
The president of the judges assocation also writes in his letter to the chief justice that according to the overall survey comments, trial judges think local courts should have more control over their own administrative and financial affairs.
“Requiring AOC approval for all aspects of each local trial court financial, administrative and facility matter is not more efficient or more effective,” he says. “Useless and unnecessary bureaucracy existing within and implemented by the AOC in the administration of the trial courts should be curbed.”
The letter to the chief says it is written in in response to her call for suggestions from judges on how to improve the branch.
In March, Cantil-Sakauye vowed to review the AOC and other branch governance issues, and recently established the Strategic Evaluation Committee, which held its first meeting last week. She fiercely opposes AB 1208 as a solution to local court’s discontent with the AOC and the council. The letter from Davis, who has individually lobbied against the bill, also reflects his disapproval of a legislative fix.
“Independence of the judicial branch is of paramount importance,” he writes. “As a general proposition, the judiciary should take responsibility and competently handle its problems internally within the branch.”
In contrast to his personal view, the comments from the survey reveal vehement support for the bill among many trial judges.
“The legislation is necessary to rein in the AOC, which is perceived as arrogant and bloated,” says one comment.
Another says, “This Bill was necessary because the Judicial Council is not representative of the local courts.”
In response to the bill’s opponent’s claims that legislative interference will fragment the branch, one comment says, “The bill does not amount to legislative interference in judicial branch affairs. It is hypocritical for the AOC to use this argument after the AOC has previously gone to the legislature for action designed to further the AOC’s own goals of central control.”
As for a question on the survey that caused an uproar in March among CJA members and others, asking judges whether they believed issues of governance should remain within the branch and “not become a function of external branch process,” the commenters’ responses are fervent and varied.
“Passage of AB1208 would not be the end, but the beginning of unwanted legislative intervention in judicial branch governance,” one comment says. Another comment, disagreeing with the question, says, “If we cannot govern ourselves, then someone must. AB1208 is not an external political effort, but rather an effort by judicial branch members. AB 1208 is a transparent process to improve judicial governance. The AOC has not been transparent in its governance, and thus external action was taken. Legislative involvement was necessary in order to address the imbalance of power within the judicial branch itself.”
Regardless of how judges responded to that particular survey question, almost all the answers seem to return to recurring theme throughout the comments, that the AOC is out of control and Judicial Council needs to be a better voice for trial judges.
Says one especially impassioned response, “The AOC has been abusive in taking power and authority from the local courts. The Judicial Council and the AOC refuse to listen to other voices or allow debate on disputed issues of judicial governance, and they publicly attack judges who question any of their decisions. How can we change for the better if new or different ideas are not allowed to be heard?”