AOC’s Proposed Wish List Excludes Additional Trial Court Staffing, Includes Additional AOC Staffing

Posted on July 31, 2013

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JCW: It’s an amazing conversation to listen to. The courts have identified all of these needs and shortcomings in their own operations and what spews forth for approval from the AOC isn’t a single suggestion that any of these needs be funded but that the AOC push forth and augment their own staff by yet to be defined numbers, hiring additional technology professionals and additional hiring for a new blue ribbon commission. Yet not a dime requested for self-help or dependency counsel. It really does speak to AOC (and the Chief Justices) priorities and what is clear is that your trial court isn’t even on the radar.

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The Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee met on July 9 in San Francisco at the AOC headquarters. Here is a link to the entire agenda. The Alliance wishes to point out the discussion relating to what budget change proposals ( “BCP’s” ) would likely be submitted on behalf of the branch to the Department of Finance.

By way of background, after the Legislature passes the state budget bill and the Governor signs it, entities of state government can present budget change proposals to the Department of Finance which request additional funding for programs or projects deemed essential and for which insufficient funding has been appropriated. Sometimes the BCP is approved and other times the Department of Finance might request additional information or simply deny the request altogether. Generally speaking, you can identify an entity’s priorities by reviewing what BCP’s they are submitting.

It is for that reason we listened very carefully to the presentation of AOC Chief Administrative Officer, Curt Soderlund, to the committee as to the branch’s priorities. Apparently these were devised by AOC staff. The audio lasts 21 minutes and 58 seconds and is found here. We encourage you to take the time to listen for yourself. In doing so you will discover that the AOC suggests requesting additional funding to “augment” AOC staffing in order to carry out certain nascent “initiatives,” including an unspecified “Blue Ribbon Commission.” Seriously? We are at a loss to understand why our branch leadership would use what little political capital they may still have to feather their own nests while ignoring the fact that thousands of trial court employees have already lost their jobs. It is clear, however, that restoring funding for our local court staff did not make the cut on the AOC’s wish-list.

You will also note that a question from a committee member as to whether and how trial courts and the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee would have input into the AOC’s final decisions on the BCP went largely unanswered. In fact, the linguistic gymnastics engaged in by Mr. Soderlund were extraordinary, even by AOC standards. If he had responded to that simple question in a courtroom, his answer would have been appropriately stricken as non-responsive, but we will let you make that call for yourself. In any event we applaud Committee Co-Chair, Sacramento Presiding Judge Laurie Earl, for taking the initiative at the close of the meeting to announce that she would be sending out a survey to every Presiding Judge and Court Executive asking what their top three priorities were. Thank you Judge Earl. Apparently AOC staff continue to act as though they are in charge of the branch. Not so. The judges and justices they purport to serve are tasked with that responsibility — judges and justices are the people who should drive the decision making, not the highly paid bureaucrats removed from the reality of a courtroom.

In the past, the Alliance has proposed a simple test to determine how our limited branch funds should be spent: “Is this proposal/program more important than keeping our local courts open?” If the answer is “no,” then funds should not be spent on that proposal/program. So, the next time you hear our unelected branch leadership claim that keeping our local courts open and fully functioning is THE priority of the branch, reflect on those 21 minutes and 58 seconds. That excerpt speaks for itself; the rest is mere window dressing.

On another note, we recently received copies of two resolutions that our current Chief Justice signed which have permitted certain AOC executive staff to continue receiving a benefit whereby the taxpayers pay 100% of their retirement contribution. We are in the process of reviewing those documents and will be communicating with you in the near future on that matter. We do wish to thank Administrative Director, Judge Steve Jahr, for eliminating the usual hoops one has to jump through in order to obtain public documents from his staff. Judge Jahr does not receive that pension perk. We hope that this new manner of cooperation will turn out to be the rule and not the exception to our requests for information