The Backstory: How AOC Salaries Got Out of Whack

Posted on February 2, 2015

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The recent Report of the California State Auditor slammed the AOC for paying its employees “unreasonably high salaries and generous benefits” that are “much higher than the salaries they would earn in comparable executive branch positions.”   These salaries are particularly excessive at the top: “The AOC pays eight of its nine office directors more than the governor and other high-ranking state officials receive, yet those officials have much broader responsibilities.”  On top of these high salaries, the AOC has picked up the employee’s share of the retirement contribution of some of its high-ranking officials “at a total cost of more than $858,000 over a four-year period.”  Overall, the State Auditor identified “about $30 million in questionable compensation and business practices over a four-year period, plus additional savings if the AOC were to consolidate its operations in one location.”

This situation did not develop overnight.  It is the accumulated result of a lack of oversight, a lack of accountability, and an utter lack of transparency.  We know whereof we speak. The Alliance has been speaking out against AOC bloat and high salaries ever since we were formed back in 2009.  Some of us were in the room when these decisions on compensation were being approved.  We want to share with you what we know about how this wildly unbalanced pay structure came to be.

Back in 2009, then-Chief Justice Ronald George decided to give pay raises to the AOC’s 900-plus employees—this on the heels of mandatory court closures, thousands of trial court employee layoffs, and the Chief urging judges to contribute five percent of their salaries to the state to help keep courts open.  The Daily Journal later described these raises as a “parting gift” by the retiring Chief.  The chair of his hastily formed “Committee on Accountability and Efficiency”—appellate justice and Council member Tani Cantil-Sakauye—agreed.  That was the “Accountability Committee’s” sole action before her swearing-in as Chief Justice.

The Alliance objected to these raises.  Alliance members traveled to San Francisco to speak on the matter at a Council meeting where the raises would be discussed.  Permission to speak was denied by Justice Richard Huffman, then a 13-year Council member and Chair of the Executive and Planning Committee.  Though we weren’t allowed to speak, Justice Huffman himself had plenty to say.  At the December 15, 2009, meeting of the Council, he said:

“I’ll be damned if I’m of a mood to support some major overhaul of the Judicial Council’s governance policy because of some newspaper articles that caused some judges to get angry.”

A month later, at the Council meeting on January 21, 2010, he said:

“[I]t makes me a little weary when some clown’s worried about whether or not somebody got a step increase two years ago in an outfit that’s putting in tremendous work with less resources, less staff than any other governmental agency would do, and does a (unintelligible) damn well better job. . . .”

In the years that followed, the new Chief Justice continued the practice of giving raises to the AOC—completely bypassing the  “Accountability Committee” she had formerly led.  (Justice Huffman, ironically, has chaired that committee since the departure of Justice George, and continues in that role today.)

On August 13, 2012, we asked Justice Huffman to explain to us the reason for his committee’s failure to weigh in on two subsequent yearly pay raises ordered by the current Chief Justice.  In response, Justice Huffman claimed he was “awaiting instructions” from his successor on the Executive and Planning Committee, Justice Douglas Miller, and cited a lack of clarity as to the “Accountability Committee’s” actual charge.

Just 11 days after our inquiry to Justice Huffman, the long-dormant “Accountability Committee” sprang into action—but not on the issue of raises for the AOC rank and file.  On August 24, 2012, members of the committee were notified that the Chief Justice wished them to meet.  They were told that the reason for the meeting would not be revealed to them until after the Council meeting on August 31, 2012.  That day—a Friday before a three-day weekend—at 4:00 pm, the committee members received documents indicating that the Chief Justice wanted them to review proposed salary ranges for three newly created AOC positions as part of the AOC’s “restructuring.”  The committee members were told that the Chief needed their recommendation at the close of their meeting.

The committee met by telephone on September 4 and voted to recommend the salary numbers presented to them—up to $216,000 for the Chief of Staff and up to $198,165 for the Chief Administrative Director and Chief Operating Officer positions.  The committee had conducted no prior study of the matter.  The numbers were provided to it by incoming AOC Administrative Director Steven Jahr.  The committee had no outside consultant, was staffed by the AOC itself, and had no data whatsoever other than that provided for the meeting by the AOC.  Committee member Tia Fisher, an Alliance director, was one of only two committee members who voted “no.”

The next day, the Chief Justice announced that the three individuals chosen to fill the new spots—all long time high-level AOC executives—would be paid at the top of their respective salary ranges.  All three thus received annual raises of from $18,000 to $22,000.  Shortly thereafter, the Chief Justice took steps to ensure that they were all “grandfathered in” and allowed to continue having their entire retirement contribution of 22 percent paid for them, notwithstanding longstanding and widespread criticism of this practice and notwithstanding that the committee had not discussed, much less recommended, this course of action.

According to Justice Huffman, there are no minutes of the September 4 meeting.

A postscript: When her one-year term on the committee came to an end, Judge Fisher applied for a second year on the committee and was nominated by her presiding judge.  Although second-year appointments were routinely made, Judge Fisher’s application was turned down by Justice Miller, who cited the need for “diversity.” The only other member who did not vote in accordance with the AOC recommendation likewise was not reappointed for a second year.

This story has two morals.  First, the Council and its byzantine structure of standing committees, advisory committees and task forces, has proven itself incapable of reining in the AOC and stopping the drain of millions of dollars which could be better spent on the trial courts.  The “Accountability Committee” has held no one accountable, nor has it even been given the power to do so—it has simply awaited its marching orders and done exactly what the AOC asked of it, from its first meeting forward.  It is a sham, and the State Auditor said as much:

“Even though the Judicial Council created the Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency for the Judicial Branch to promote transparency, accountability, efficiency, and understanding of the AOC and the judicial branch, the Judicial Council did not ensure that the financial advisory committee fulfilled its intended purpose.”

Second, for all its committees, the Judicial Council has become nothing more than an echo chamber.  Dissenting voices are silenced or disregarded.

Change won’t come from within the Council or the AOC.  Change will have to come from outside the branch, from a restructuring of our governance system mandated by the Legislature.  Our leaders have left no other path.

Again, we thank Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer for calling for the audit that confirmed our criticisms.  We commend to you an article dealing with these matters written by Maria Dinzeo of the Courthouse News Service and published on Friday, Jan. 30.  The article contains links to several of the documents mentioned in this email.  It can be accessed by clicking on this link:

http://www.courthousenews.com/2015/01/30/maneuvering-behind-top-salaries-in-ca-court-bureaucracy-revealed.htm

Thank you for your continued support.

Directors, Alliance of California Judgesf California Judges