More Statewide Fallout From The Judicial Council Audit

Posted on January 15, 2015

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Here are two articles dealing with the recent audit that we thought you might find interesting.

Thank you,

Directors, Alliance of California Judges

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The Bakersfield Californian, January 13, 2015

Another study points to Judicial Council wrongs

by Lois Henry

The Legislature needs to get off its duff and take back spending authority from the Judicial Council.

Those guys might be really smart about legal stuff but, frankly, they don’t know the pointy end of a pencil when it comes to keeping tabs on the public’s money.

Don’t know what the Judicial Council is and don’t think it affects you? Wrong.

The Judicial Council, headed by the California Supreme Court Chief Justice, makes policy recommendations for court operations.

Its staff, formerly known as the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), doles out the funding for local court operations.

Because of the Judicial Council’s inept oversight, Kern County has had to close courts, cut staff and make any trip to the courthouse that much more onerous for the public.

The Lake Isabella court is closed. As an aside, there’s an effort afoot to try to get volunteer judges, bailiffs and clerks to at least open that court two days a week.

The Taft court is only open one day a week.

All Kern courts close at 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and noon on Fridays.

If you have a family law case, you have to pay for your own court reporter. A civil case takes eons to get on the docket.

Even something as simple as looking up case files now costs the public $15 per case.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Council staff spent nearly half a billion dollars on a failed computer system despite warnings early on that the thing wouldn’t work.

Its 700 employees enjoy average salaries of about $80,000.

It rents expensive offices in San Francisco and maintains a fleet of vehicles for unknown reasons, just to name a few of the more galling examples of waste.

Yet another report came out just last week from the California State Auditor showing how the Judicial Council staff wasted hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been used for local courts.

This was the fourth such report since 2011.

In fact, the overspending, mismanagement and lack of oversight are such old news, I skimmed that part and took more notice of the State Auditor’s frustration with the Judicial Council’s responses to its findings.

Especially telling was the State Auditor’s dismissal of Judicial Council Administrative Director Martin Hoshino’s pledge to review the auditor’s recommendations and present them to the board of the Judicial Council.

“We are concerned that the AOC’s assertion that it will review its current policies … — without proposing a specific plan — suggests meaningful change will not occur,” the State Auditor writes in response.

Considering no meaningful change occurred after the first three reports (two from internal committees), I’d say the State Auditor is right.

Until the Legislature threatens to take back trial court funding, which was consolidated under the Judicial Council about 15 years ago, the council has zero incentive to better mind its books.

Last spring California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye lamented how state cutbacks had impaired local courts.

She claimed “extreme humiliation and embarrassment” when she learned Kings County Superior Court had resorted to holding a garage sale to raise money.

Really?

The first report outlining Judicial Council waste/mismanagement came out in 2011, about a month after Cantil-Sakauye became chief justice.

Three years passed and, basically, nothing. The Judicial Council, under Cantil-Sakauye, made ministerial changes, but nothing substantive, according to the State Auditor.

Yes, the state continued to cut court funding in that time. But the Judicial Council let that fall on trial courts without sharing the pain.

For Kern, that meant about a $20 million cut over four years.

Had Judicial Council staff funding been more tightly controlled, local court services likely would not have been curtailed so drastically.

To add salt to the wound, the State Auditor found Judicial Council staff spent trial court funding on its own operations — employee travel, legal services for its failed computer project, consultants, etc. — instead of spending that money out of its own pot, as required by law.

So, Cantil-Sakauye’s supposed concern for the public’s access to its courts strikes me as nothing more than crocodile tears. She’s had three years to make changes and she has failed.

Time to try something else. A group of judges, the Alliance of California Judges, was formed in 2009 to bring attention to the appalling waste members were seeing.

The group has a bill that would put trial court funding in the hands of a commission consisting of elected trial judges and move the staff responsible for doling out the money to Sacramento.

I like that on a lot of fronts.

It puts publicly elected people in charge of public money (Judicial Council board members are appointed not elected) and it moves the whole shebang to a much more affordable city where the public’s representatives, the Legislature, can keep a better eye on it.

This is the public’s justice system. We need to get a hold of it — now.

That or we could sit around and wait for another audit that — gasp! — shows waste and mismanagement while local courts continue to stick Band-Aids on yet another 1,000 cuts.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or lhenry@bakersfield.com. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.

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The San Diego Union Tribune, January 8, 2015

Audit gavels down waste in state court

by Greg Moran

The administrative office for California state courts has blown millions of dollars on high salaries, generous benefits and bad business decisions during a time of unprecedented budget cuts that have closed courtrooms and diminished public access.

Those are some of the findings in a report this week by state Auditor Elaine Howle criticizing the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The 96-page audit not only criticized the office for mismanagement, but also concluded the leadership of the state judiciary has failed in its duty to oversee the agency.

The report depicted an office with few internal controls and less oversight, one that doesn’t spend the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to it by the legislature “in the most transparent and justified manner.”

Among other examples, auditors found the agency used a portion of $386 million that was supposed to support the state’s local court systems for its own operations. In effect, the audit found the agency siphoned money designed for local courts for its own use.

About $186 million was spent on consultants, contractors and temporary employees, and $6 million was spent on office supplies and equipment for the agency, which has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

An undetermined amount of those funds could have been used to prop up local courts, which have had to shutter courtrooms, reduce hours, lay off staff and cut services during the past five years.

In San Diego alone, the courts have closed scores of civil law courtrooms (where lawsuits are heard) and reduced staff to 1,200 from 1,600.

More reductions are due this year. Plans call for closing traffic courts in El Cajon and Chula Vista courthouses and moving all cases to the Kearny Mesa courts, a longer drive for motorists from south and east county.

Statewide, 53 courthouses have closed and more than 200 individual courtrooms have gone idle as the court’s budges has been cut by more than $1 billion since the state’s fiscal crisis began in 2008.

During the same time, the audit said, the courts agency — with as many as 1,000 employees — did not share in the pain.

Also of note:

  • There are eight executives at the administrative agency who have a salary higher than Gov. Jerry Brown, who is paid $177,000 per year. A total of 88 agency employees earn more than $130,000 annually. In 2013, the average salary for an agency employee was $82,000, while the average for executive branch employees was $62,000.
  • The agency has a fleet of 66 vehicles, but hasn’t justified why it needs them and doesn’t have a centralized inventory system for the fleet. Three top executives who had cars used them for business purposes 20 percent of the time. The rest was for personal use — primarily driving between home and work, the report said.

• The agency didn’t have a policy governing employee use of cell phones until this past May. Some 200 employees had been issued phones before the policy went into effect. The audit said the agency doesn’t track the expenses.

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JCW: Accountability is about holding people responsible for their actions. In each case where a wrong was committed Mr. Hoshino should be holding people accountable.

Yesterday, the United States Secret Service found that their own poisonous culture was exactly like the culture exhibited by the Judicial Council. Specifically, Secret Service senior managers punished agents who revealed issues or problems while promoting agents who got along to get along and completely overlooked lapses in security.

When lesser ranked agents in the USSS were interviewed, they indicated that the terminations would serve as a morale booster for the beleaguered agency and would go a long ways in assisting the healing process. AOC employees have expressed the same sentiment and also believe that quite a few senior managers, directors and assistant directors should be fired if their agency is to ever have a shred of credibility. Most are aghast that sheer incompetence has resulted in promotions and additional management opportunities being opened up among the AOC ranks.

As we have said, we think it is essential that every position above the rank of supervisor be carefully scrutinized and that some terminations occur. Without taking these actions and shaking up the agency, there is no hope of gaining any credibility among the rank and file staff of the AOC, the legislature or the trial courts.