Report From Judges Blasts California Court Bureaucracy
By MARIA DINZEO
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a sweeping call for reform of the Administrative Office of the Courts, a report from a committee of judges found the agency has been operated as the director’s fiefdom, has strayed far from its original path and has been deceptive about finances and personnel. The judges also criticized the bureaucracy as top-heavy, over-paid and badly organized.
Their long-awaited report proposes a drastic reorganization that includes cutting the staff by one-third and moving the agency from its lavish San Francisco headquarters to a cheaper space in Sacramento. In the 277-page, 11-chapter document, the Strategic Evaluation Committee also recommended cutting high-level positions, closing regional offices and eliminating entire divisions of the vast bureaucracy that sits atop the court system.
Based on a year-long investigation, the massive, crisply-worded report does not pull its punches.
It confirms the position of critics on a host of points, including the agency’s effort to control the trial courts and their judges and the agency’s domination of proceedings before the Judicial Council, the body of judges which is ostensibly in charge of the administrative office staff. In a telling point, the report’s authors noted that not a single organization chart provided by the administrators showed the Judicial Council in its rightful place at the top of the chart. In drawing an entirely new organization chart for the agency, the committee put the Judicial Council back at the top.
“A fundamental overhaul of the agency’s organizational structure is needed,” said the report that has been a year in the making. “Over time, the AOC has amplified its role and has lost its focus on one of its primary roles and core functions, which is providing service to the trial courts.” The report was released by the committee late on Friday as the Memorial Day weekend was starting.
Culture of Control
The committee was established last year by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In a statement accompanying the report’s release on Friday, she took a neutral position, saying she had not had time to review the report’s more than 100 recommendations for specific changes.
The judges on the committee were appointed in response to widespread anger from trial judges against the large bureaucracy. In their report, the judges highlight what it calls a “culture of control” that has permeated the agency in its dealings with the trial courts.
“A pervasive feeling in the trial courts is that the AOC developed a culture or attitude of control in its dealings with those in the judicial branch,” said the report. “Full input and dissenting viewpoints of courts and judges were generally not sought or believed to be valued by the AOC, even with respect to major branch-wide initiatives concerning technology or financial systems.”
In discussing the control the bureaucrats exercised over the Judicial Council, the lengthy analysis noted that the top-level bureaucrats became highly insular, making decisions with little or no input from judges. “Information was controlled, and dissent was not encouraged,” said the report. “Judicial Council meetings were tightly scripted, with limited time for review of materials and for meaningful, open discussion of important issues.”
Staff Size and Perks
In one of the many slams to the agency, the authors focused on the self-indulgence of the staff during a time of severe budget strains and staff cuts in the local trial courts.
The AOC announced that it, like the courts, had instituted a one day per month furlough program for its employees; however, unlike courts that involuntarily imposed the furlough without remuneration or offsets, for a six-month period the AOC gave voluntary participants a credit of one day of leave time for each furlough day. Thus AOC employees did not feel the same impact as that experienced by many trial court employees.”
In patient and occasionally elliptical fashion, the report authors lay out the financial gimmickry used by the administrative office on personnel and financial matters.
For example, the administrative office claimed that it absorbed a 12% cut while the trial courts had taken a 6.8% percent, when in fact a much, much bigger slice had been cut out of trial court budgets. “This was not an oversight because the discrepancy had been questioned at an earlier meeting of the Trial Court Budget Working Group, but the AOC continued to use the 6.8 percent figure,” wrote the authors at page 40. “A more accurate and credible statement would have been that the trial courts had been subject to a nearly 23 percent reduction in their budgets as a result of the continuing cuts that had occurred over several years.” “The lack of credibility of messages such as these — on topics of critical importance to the courts — results in mistrust between the AOC and the courts,” the report concluded.
Turning to the issue of staff size, the report’s conclusions are scathing.
“A frequently voiced criticism is that the AOC has not been fully transparent or credible in its discussions and public comments about staffing levels, especially as the state’s fiscal crisis hit the judicial branch over the last several years. This criticism is valid.”While the report’s authors note that the AOC has ballooned in size, hitting its peak in fiscal year 2010-2011 with 1,121 positions, an AOC spokesperson insisted to Courthouse News last year that the agency employed no more than 877 people. When Courthouse News reported higher staff levels than the spokesperson provided, it was accused of fabricating the higher number, despite evidence to the contrary.”The AOC’s reporting of staffing levels has been misleading, leading to mistrust of the AOC,” the report concluded at page 192. “Disingenuously suggesting that AOC staffing levels have been reduced in response to branch-wide budget and staffing cuts has led to further mistrust and cynicism. The need for greater credibility and transparency in AOC counting and reporting of its staffing levels is undeniable.”
The report says that a person need look no further than the AOC website for an example of misleading information about staff levels. A “Fact Sheet” from February still appears on the AOC website, saying the administrative office has a staff of “more than 750 serving the courts for the benefit of all Californians.”
“While it is true there was a staff of more than 750 at that time,” says the report, “a more accurate statement is that total staffing exceeded 1,000.” Finally, the ‘Fact Sheet’ further omits mention of an additional 124 contract staff then performing the work of regular AOC employees. ‘Fact Sheets’ stating only partial facts are not credible and do not promote transparency or trust. It is more unfortunate that misleading information about staffing levels has come from the very top levels of the AOC.” The judges on the committee point out that bureaucrats in the administrative office “are very highly compensated.” “AOC managers and employees reported that there are numerous situations in which employees are being paid more — and in some cases, substantially more — than is appropriate in light of the duties assigned to them,” the report says. The judges writing the report note that 17 jobs at the administrative office pay more than $175,000 a year in addition to hundreds that are overcompensated. “All told, several hundred AOC employees have maximum salary levels of over $100,000 per year,” said the report. It recommends cutting the top staff by 50% and cutting overall staff size to somewhere between 680 and 780, which would represent an overall reduction of roughly one-third. The report also assails the management structure — or lack thereof — in the administrative office. “There are too many high-level, highly compensated managers, and that there are too many divisions,” said the report. Because there were so many overpaid bosses, meetings are not productive, said the report. There is no agenda, and issues are often left unresolved, leading to an ad-hoc decision making process based on who the director or chief deputy favors.
This has long been an accusation against the agency from trial judges, saying the administrative office attempted to place favored bureaucrats in head clerk positions at the trial court level and then favored those courts, especially those that adopted the now-defunct IT system for tracking cases, with generous funding allotments.”Multiple persons reported that budget prioritization within AOC has sometimes occurred on an ad hoc basis, in the sense that some division directors simply approached the former Administrative Director with budget requests, which were sometimes granted without comprehensive consideration of other agency-wide priorities or cost-benefit analysis,” said the report at page 115. “This type of approval process is consistent with criticisms that AOC budget decisions sometimes were made on the basis of whether division directors were regarded as favorites of the Administrative Director.”
The report further substantiated many judges’ concerns about the lack of transparency in the AOC’s budget. For years, judges and reporters have been asking questions about the size of the AOC’s budget and how it is funded, to little avail. In an understated manner, the authors say the agency has not made accurate financial reporting “a priority.” “Concerns have been expressed both internally and externally that the budget process employed by the AOC is not understandable and is so confusing that it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand what is funded or how it is funded,” said the report at pages 182 and 184. “There is currently a complete lack of faith in the fiscal information released by the AOC. It does not appear that management has made accurate and timely financial information a priority.”
That criticism of the agency’s handling of money is consistent with a report last year from the Bureau of State Audits that said the administrative office had been concealing the true cost of a controversial IT project called the Court Case Management System.The judiciary spent half a billion dollars on the project over nine years before pulling the project’s plug two months ago. Friday’s report also upbraided the agency for that project, siding with the State Auditor in finding that the agency had not planned well for the massively expensive undertaking.
In many instances, the AOC has not undertaken necessary business case analyses for branch-wide initiatives and projects, or if it has done so, it has been late in the game, with significant negative fiscal impacts as a result.” “Although courts experienced budget shortfalls and were required to engage in court closures, seemingly unlimited funding continued for the controversial and costly Court Case Management System (CCMS),” the report continued. “Criticisms over the escalating estimated costs of the CCMS project, and its lack of proper planning and management, merged with broader criticisms and debate concerning the role of the AOC.”
Moving to Sacramento
The judges also point out that some AOC employees were less than cooperative with the committee’s investigation. “Morale at the AOC is at an all-time low and that many of its managing and other employees feel unduly criticized,” said the report. “As a result, some AOC employees who were interviewed or who responded to surveys were defensive or resisted providing information.”
“Some information provided by the AOC and its divisions was incomplete or non responsive,” the report authors added. “The SEC encountered numerous delays in receiving some information.”
The committee’s report teems with recommendations, among them that the agency be pared down through the complete overhaul of the AOC’s organizational structure, the closure of its regional offices and elimination of a host of positions. In suggesting that moving headquarters to Sacramento, the report says, “The high cost of the lease in San Francisco certainly underscores the need for the AOC to evaluate the continued economic viability of that location in the course of conducting its long-range planning.” “The judicial branch is charged with the responsibility to use taxpayer funds prudently. In this case, the Sacramento lease rates are substantially lower than the space leased in San Francisco. If the AOC had its primary operations in Sacramento, that would place its headquarters in the political capital of California and emphasize the standing of the judicial branch as a co-equal branch of state government.”
In one of its most fundamental recommendations, the committee calls on the Judicial Council and the chief justice to rein in the agency, saying, “The Judicial Council must take an active role in overseeing and monitoring the AOC and demanding transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the AOC’s operations and practices.”
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement late Friday that she has appointed the SEC chair and vice-chair, Assistant Presiding Judge Charles Wachob of Placer County and Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, to sit on the Judicial Council, adding, “I want to make sure that work of the committee is front and center on the Judicial Council’s agenda in the coming year.”
THE LATEST ON CALIFORNIA POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
May 29, 2012
Scathing report on judicial bureaucracy bolsters rebel judges
The years-long political war among California’s judges took another turn Friday, when a special commission appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to investigate the Administrative Office of the Courts delivered a scathing report that, in effect, agreed with rebel judges.
The rebels, coalesced in the Alliance of California Judges, have been pushing legislation that would reduce the powers of the Judicial Council, which is headed by the chief justice, and the AOC and give local judges more authority to spend money.
The Alliance has accused the AOC of building a bloated bureaucracy (more than 1,100 employees) and wasting money on itself and on an inoperable computer case management system while starving local courts and forcing them to shut down periodically and furlough employees.
The “Strategic Evaluation Committee” bolstered the Alliance’s case in its 298-page report, concluding, “The top-level decision making process of the AOC became insular, with a top-down management style limiting input from those within the organization.”
While the AOC’s shortcomings went unnoticed when judicial money was plentiful, the report continued, cutbacks in state support made them evident – especially the rapidly escalating costs and planning shortcomings of the case management system. The commission described the AOC as a “top-heavy and unwieldy organization” with “deficient” management processes.
Cantil-Sakauye inherited the judicial war from predecessor Ron George, who presided over the consolidation of 58 local court systems into one statewide system primarily financed by the state. He also launched the case management system – which was recently abandoned – and an extensive courtroom construction program which has been partially suspended to save money.
Cantil-Sakauye and the Judicial Council have been trying to settle the war by appointing the AOC study commission and stopping work on the computer and courthouse construction programs while opposing the Alliance-backed legislation and pleading with the Legislature for more money.
The Alliance hailed the AOC report, saying, “In summary, the report validates positions taken by the Alliance of California Judges and others who for years have warned that the AOC is broken at its very core and has been allowed to run itself, without meaningful Judicial Council oversight, for well over a decade.”
The Assembly has approved the Alliance-sponsored bill, Assembly Bill 1208 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, but it’s been stalled in the Senate by President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
May 30, 2012
Dear Members and Others,
Yesterday afternoon all judges were sent the Court News Update from the AOC. We understand that many judges, for whatever reason, simply delete these emails. Because of that the Alliance carefully reviews this material.
Yesterday, the Chief Justice delivered videotaped remarks to the AOC staff — not to the judges of this state — regarding the SEC report. Her remarks are brief and we encourage all of you to watch the video for yourself by clicking on this link: Chief’s message to AOC staff, that was included in yesterday’s email. (mms://wms.1A57.edgecastcdn.net/001A57/eop/ccn/SECReportAOC.wmv)
The Alliance is troubled that the Chief Justice would immediately question the accuracy and validity of a report that was the product of a committee that she selected. Committee members worked diligently for over a year on the project while performing their duties as judges. We note that their task was made more difficult by the usual reticence of AOC staff to provide information. See the following language from pages 32 and 63 of the report: ” …some information provided by the AOC and its divisions was incomplete or non responsive,” and “resistance was encountered in obtaining basic and accurate information about the AOC, including both programmatic and administrative data”.
We are also mindful that the unfortunate reaction of the Chief Justice is not an isolated incident. The respected State Auditor, members of the State Assembly, and members of the press have likewise been the subject of displeasure when offering a viewpoint in contradiction of AOC or Judicial Council actions.
While we can appreciate how one might be disappointed in the final product of the SEC, we believe that the committee members deserve our thanks for a job that was made even more difficult by an entrenched bureaucracy unaccustomed to having its actions questioned.
We include two articles, one from the Los Angeles Times, and the other from the Recorder’s Cheryl Miller.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges
Agency that runs California courts ‘dysfunctional,’ report says
The report, ordered by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, could undermine her attempts to roll back budget cuts of about $544 million.
By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2012
The agency that runs the California court system has become “dysfunctional” and bloated with high-salaried bureaucrats and requires a major overhaul, according to a report ordered by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
The 300-page report, which will be presented to judicial branch leaders next month, comes as the courts are trying to stave off large budget cuts from Sacramento. Although ordered by Cantil-Sakauye and written by a committee she named, the highly critical evaluation may undermine the chief jurist’s efforts to roll back projected budget cuts of about $544 million.
The committee of 11 judges said the Administrative Office of the Courts, the San Francisco-based agency that runs the court system, is overstaffed, “top-heavy” and unwieldy. The office has strayed from its required task of serving the courts and become controlling, deceptive and secretive, the judges said.
“The top-level decision-making process of the AOC became insular, with a top-down management style limiting input from those within the organization,” the report said. The judges cited 17 positions with maximum annual salaries at or above $175,000, “numerous positions” with salaries in excess of $100,000 and a staff attorney who was permitted to telecommute from Switzerland.
The problems occurred during the tenure of retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George and retired administrative office Director William Vickrey, the report said. During that time, new committees, rules and programs were established at the behest of the Judicial Council, the courts’ governing body headed by the chief justice, the report said. The council failed to keep a close eye on management and bureaucracy as staffing swelled to 1,100, according to the analysis.
The report recommends greater oversight by the Judicial Council, a restructuring of the bureaucracy, regular internal audits, staff cuts and possible relocation of the Administrative Office of the Courts from pricey office space in San Francisco to Sacramento.
Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged that the report contains “hard criticisms” and noted that downsizing and restructuring are already occurring. She said staffing will be down to 860 by June 30 because of ongoing layoffs.
The Alliance of California Judges, a dissenting group that has complained about the court bureaucracy, called the evaluation “an A to Z indictment of an out-of-control organization.” The group said the report confirmed what the Alliance has been saying for years: “The AOC is broken at its very core and has been allowed to run itself … for well over a decade.”
Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times
Published today, Tuesday, May 29, from The Recorder, the on-line publication of CalLaw, by Cheryl Miller:
Judges Criticize Court Bureaucracy in Blistering Report
By Cheryl Miller
SACRAMENTO – In a blistering indictment of the state’s judicial administration, a long-awaited report released Friday night concluded that the Administrative Office of the Courts is over-staffed, dysfunctional and less than forthcoming about sensitive issues.
The Strategic Evaluation Committee, comprised almost entirely of judges, said the AOC has “lost its focus” on serving the trial courts and assumed a more dominant, controlling role in its relationship with California’s 58 superior courts. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye created the committee in March 2011 in response to concerns the AOC had grown too large despite an era of lean budgets.
“Every organization needs to periodically re-examine its mission and its functions and in this case, it doesn’t appear that that was done in a meaningful way for a long time,” the committee’s chairman, Placer County Superior Court Judge Charles Wachob, said Tuesday. “The organization drifted from its essential function of supporting or assisting the courts if the courts request assistance.”
What’s more, AOC officials skewed budget and staffing-level numbers to give the false impression that the administration has suffered as much as trial courts in the economic downturn, the report said. For instance, the AOC reported in February that it had a staff of “more than 750.” In fact, when all of the agency’s contract and temporary workers – some of which had been with the AOC for more than two years — were added in, the actual number climbed to above 1,000, a near-historic level.
“The AOC’s reporting of staffing levels has been misleading, leading to mistrust of the AOC,” the report said. “Disingenuously suggesting that AOC staffing levels have been reduced in response to branch-wide budget and staffing cuts has led to further mistrust and cynicism.”
The committee’s report recommends a major overhaul of the AOC’s “top heavy” structure, which would eventually leave the agency with somewhere between 680 and 780 authorized positions.
The 297-page report will undoubtedly shape the current budget negotiations – Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised spending plan issued earlier this month spared the AOC, but not the trial courts, from direct cuts – as well as impact the search for a new administrative director. Committee members called former Administrative Director of the Courts William Vickrey “a visionary” but criticized the Judicial Council for not providing more oversight of his work.
Critics of the AOC seized on the report as proof of their long-held contention that the administration is bloated and unresponsive to local courts.
“The nearly 300-page report is an A-to-Z indictment of an out of control organization,” directors of the Alliance of California Judges wrote in an email Monday. “It is an absolute ‘must read’ for everyone concerned about the functionality and credibility of our judicial branch.
Jody Patel, who was a regional director for the AOC for five years until her appointment as AOC’s interim administrative director, said she couldn’t “speak for the past administrators” but insisted that “a lot has changed and will continue to change” at the AOC in the coming months.
In a brief conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Cantil-Sakauye called the committee’s work “fabulous” but said the report is “backwards-looking” and does not consider the restructuring and staff reductions now planned.
“I think that this is the branch doing what it is supposed to do: taking a hard look at ourselves and how we can best perform under limited resources,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “That’s what we do. I didn’t need anyone to tell me to do that. I didn’t need the Legislature to order it. It’s something I want to do. It’s something the Judicial Council wants to have done.”
Cantil-Sakauye also bristled at criticism that the report was released after 7 p.m. Friday, just at the start of a three-day weekend, when a holiday-minded public traditionally pays little attention to the news. Cantil-Sakauye said she released the report as soon as she received it.
“I didn’t think for a minute that there was anything untoward or surreptitious or suspicious about releasing it on a Friday,” the chief justice said. “In fact, had I waited and released it on Tuesday I’m sure people would have said ‘She sat on it for a weekend, for three days.’ So you know, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
The report describes an administration that is top heavy with highly paid managers and that often disregards employment policies. For instance, three staff attorneys telecommute from outside of California – one from Switzerland – in an apparent conflict with rules limiting such long-range working arrangements. Also, some division directors openly admitted to the committee that they employed temporary workers to get around a hiring freeze.
The committee made dozens of recommendations to overhaul the AOC, including:
•Considering the transfer of all AOC offices from San Francisco to Sacramento to cut down on costs;
•Reorganizing top management to include an administrative director, a chief of staff and a chief operating officer;
•Reassessing all attorney jobs “with a goal of reducing their numbers;”
•Requiring the Judicial Council to conduct regular assessments of the administrative director’s job performance.
The report now goes to the Judicial Council for consideration at its June meeting. Chairman Wachob and the committee’s vice chair, Judge Brian McCabe of the Merced County Superior Court, have been appointed to the council as advisory members.
“My hope is that the Judicial Council will take into consideration the many different voices that are out there,” said San Diego County Superior Court Judge David Rubin, president of the California Judges Association. “There may be places that we as judges want to go further or in a different direction” than this report, he said.
- California court bureaucracy battered in new report (mercurynews.com)
- Petition to disband the AOC nears 500 signatures (judicialcouncilwatcher.wordpress.com)