The Judicial Council’s half-hearted attempts at reform

Posted on April 27, 2014


It started with the commissioning and implementation of the SEC report

While all of us witnessed the Judicial Council’s administrative offices going rogue and wasting hundreds of millions of dollars our chief justice sought to delay the budgetary hammer coming down on her administrative offices by coming up with a three year plan of delay and obfuscation called the Strategic Evaluation Committee report. Judges and justices from all over the state would be tasked to look at the AOC and their various divisions and study them. Eventually they produced a report that ripped the administrative office a new orifice recommending radical change. Judicial Council leadership was stunned by the reports recommendations and indicated they would take them under advisement.

For those of us who wished to see real reform it was a major disappointment because it gave ample reason for the other two branches to keep on swinging that budget axe in an effort to send a message to San Francisco. Then our chief justice sought to measure how many people in the branch including justice partners outside of the branch supported reforms by putting the report out for an endless summer of comments. While hundreds and hundreds of comments from across the state rolled in supporting reforms, insiders on the council reached out to their grantees in a dishonorable attempt to stem the tide and push back on the report.

Judicial Council insiders like Justices Miller and Robie working through the state bar and the access to justice committee would provide a list of talking points to the grantees, usually legal aid organizations that rely in part on judicial council funding provided by a bloated AOC. In many cases, those grantees would not waste any time and just put the same talking points verbatim in their SEC responses. Others would actually change the wording of the talking points provided. The veiled threat here was that if the AOC did not exist in their current form, neither would their grants. We, among many others caught them red-handed in the act.

Despite the overwhelming comments demanding reform from entire benches and hundreds of judges and court workers from across the state, the all too powerful Executive Committee would indicate that the reforms went too far and that they would not accept the report. Again to save the budget axe swinging in the general direction of the council and their administrative offices, they were virtually bludgeoned into accepting the report and the conclusions therein by indicating they would put the study under study, review the recommendations and implement what they agreed with.

Over time, they would implement or partly implement SEC recommendations. Many of what we considered were the most important reforms would end up on the cutting room floor. This weeks adopted reforms of the legal services offices was the latest example. The Council rejected the notion that hundreds of staff lawyers could do the jobs they were being paid for and that they should continue to contract out to a myriad of law firms from across the state in an effort to continue conflicting them out on other matters under the auspices of more experienced expertise. Much like reorganizing the deck chairs on the titanic, the judicial council would rearrange the legal services office. There would remain hundreds of lawyers in the AOC and they would continue to contract legal services as the best strategy to defending the branch continues to be conflicting the law firms out of representing those that might otherwise pursue them.

Public Information Requests

In an effort to push back on public information requests, the AOC’s lobbyists and judicial council members vigorously lobbied the other two branches into rejecting the notion that the AOC should release information to the public codified as a rule of law by the legislature. In its stead they would foist up a rule of court that the were free to ignore and have ignored numerous times. To this day, no judge, legislator or even the state auditor has even seen, much less released an un-redacted version of the Deloitte contract for the California Case Management System.

Open Meeting Rules

Again in an effort to push back on open meeting rules, the AOC’s lobbists and Judicial Council members vigorously lobbied the other two branches into rejecting the imposition of the Brown open meeting act. In its stead, they would replace the rule with another rule of court that they were free to ignore because no one enforces the rules of court on the judicial council or the AOC. We would also find out this week what everyone suspected – that committee meetings are carefully choreographed by the Administrative Office of the Courts and appointed chairs into being little more than a rubber stamp program and a new rule would be promulgated that closes the meetings to the public for just about any reason they can dream up.

Outlandish security costs don’t match the threat

Meanwhile while the well-funded juggernaut we know as the judicial council and the AOC continues to rob trial court funds under the auspices of providing services, courts across the state have gone beyond the flesh and are cutting into the bone of their operations statewide. We would learn from News 10 in San Diego that over 21 million dollars per year is spent chauffeuring justices around and presiding justices to and from work. This would be in addition to their in-house security forces that we know as emergency response and security that News 10 didn’t get the opportunity to cover.

Outlandish Court Construction and Maintenance Costs Continue Unabated

We would learn this past week that the real house that george built would be the most expensive courthouse in the world in Long Beach and we would learn that annual rent payments are coming in at about a million dollars more per month than advertised by the council. You would think a bunch of judges and hundreds of lawyers would get a contract like the one with long beach judicial partners right so that the taxpayers weren’t on the hook for it. Unfortunately the contract reads like a KBR contract for gulf war support where just sneezing in the general direction of LBJP would cost the state dearly for years to come. Worse, the county of Los Angeles would file suit to collect property taxes from the private entity that owns the courthouse and the AOC would contractually reimburse those taxes paid if a judicial council paid and strategized legal defense was unsuccessful. In any case, this will amount to significant other state funds being diverted to the long beach courthouse at the cost of the construction program. And of course, the AOC is still paying a quarter million dollars for audience seating in a courtroom of a preferred court while other courthouses that didn’t suck-up as well deploy the bucket brigades in the building every time it rains.

The numbers don’t add up and it does not seem to matter in Sacramento.

When you fairly subtract the long beach courthouse from the authorized bond money for the entire court construction program, you come to the realization that the Judicial Council and the AOC are about to go hundreds of millions, if not billions over budget. So why are they not sending the state auditor into the construction program and coming to the same conclusion that we can easily add up on a piece of paper? What kind of future pain must be endured by the courts because the judicial council has been fundamentally dishonest with not only every one in the branch but the other two branches of government?

The Facts and other common sense reforms

After four years of the same bullshit is high time to stop messing with rearranging the Titanics deck chairs and cut the councils administrative office down to a few hundred people and limit their reach, limit the funding and bring an end to the rampant fraud,waste and abuse.

The fact of the matter is that all of this is not only untenable but it is unsustainable and demands that a May revise that should result in the state of California cutting their losses by redirecting all funds away from the judicial council and the AOC and to the trial courts directly by gutting most of their programs which most to be nonessential anyways.

Taking the money away is the only method available to stop fueling the rampant fraud waste and abuse.

After all, the council is constitutionally only an advise and report body, not the head of a branch of government. If you were to come to the unlikely constitutional conclusion that the judicial council is the policy making head of the branch like they claim, they remain derelict in their duties of the courts they purport to serve and it has cost the people of the state of California over 200 closed courtrooms, billions in fees that traffic scofflaws can’t afford to pay and outlandish delays.

We do want to see more money for the trial courts and like most courts, court workers and judges from across the state, we believe that the largest chunk of more money should come from redirecting most funding away from the council and gutting their administrative offices and programs. The money should be sent directly to the trial courts just to stop the damage they’re doing to the judicial branch’s future. This remains just a start. Let the trial courts prove that they are better off without the juggernaut in San Francisco taking their pound of taxpayer flesh first and passing down what’s left.

Only then will judicial council democracy begin to look like an attractive option to the chief justice.