November 18, 2015
Back in January 2014, amid much fanfare, the Chief Justice announced the formation of a Commission on the Future of California’s Court System. The Futures Commission’s charge was to develop “practical, achievable recommendations that may be implemented by the Judicial Council, the Legislature, or the Governor.”
The Alliance has learned that a subcommittee of the Fiscal/Court Administration Working Group of the Commission, staffed by AOC Chief of Staff, Jody Patel, will soon propose to strip the local courts of their human resource responsibilities—the ability to hire staff, set salaries, impose discipline—and transfer that authority to the AOC. The Commission apparently intended to float the proposal around the holidays, when the media watchdogs are more likely to be sleeping. We suspect the proposal will be part of the Commission’s intended goal of establishing a “methodology for the equitable statewide distribution of judicial resources with the flexibility to accommodate population and/or workload fluctuations that occur over time.” We believe this is AOC speak for “establishing regional courts with presiding judges appointed by the Judicial Council, thereby denying local trial courts the ability to effectively manage their own operations.”
This is a very bad idea that needs to be scrapped before it gains any traction.
For starters, it violates the law. Government Code, § 77001, entitled “Decentralized trial court management rules,” states: “The Judicial Council shall adopt rules which establish a decentralized system of trial court management.” The statute mandates “[l]ocal authority and responsibility of trial courts to manage day-to-day operations,” and gives the trial courts “[t]he authority and responsibility” to manage “local personnel plans.” It provides that the trial courts—not the AOC—“shall establish the means of selecting . . . executive officers or court administrators [and] clerks of court.”
This statute isn’t just musty surplusage from some bygone age. This guarantee of local control was part of the deal when the local courts surrendered much of their budgetary authority to a centralized bureaucracy back in 1997—a decision most of us now deeply regret in light of the subsequent mismanagement of those funds by the AOC and Judicial Council.
Second, this proposal undermines the constitutional arrangement under which locally elected judges are held accountable to the voters of their counties for the administration of justice. The proposed change would leave trial judges—who face the voters every six years—on the hook for staffing decisions made by unelected bureaucrats in San Francisco. Come election time, those of us on the trial court bench pay the price if the lines move too slowly at the traffic window, or if filings aren’t processed on time, or if the phones don’t get answered. We’re the ones who are accountable for the actions of our staff and how it’s deployed. If the buck stops with us, then the authority must rest with us.
This proposal represents a last-gasp attempt to resuscitate former Chief Justice Ronald George’s grand vision of a centralized, monolithic judicial branch. It calls to mind the AOC’s back-door attempt back in 2009 to sneak language into a budget trailer bill that would have given the Judicial Council the right to pick our presiding judges and court clerks. It ignores the fact that ours is a branch that is fragmented by design. Our courts—which serve the nation’s second-largest city as well as its greatest agricultural region; desert towns as well as ski resorts; bedroom communities as well as remote logging camps—were never meant to operate in a uniform fashion. One size does not fit all. One bureaucracy should not control all.
Finally, this proposal would transfer HR decision-making authority to an entity that has proven itself utterly inept when it comes to its own HR management. According to the 2012 SEC report, the AOC in its heyday had a staff of over 1100—far more than it needed—in almost 200 different pay classifications. In January 2015, the State Auditor concluded that the AOC paid its top people too much, and that it wasted money on travel and cars. A quick Internet search of employee message boards reveals that the AOC is not held in high regard by its own people. It has virtually zero credibility with the Legislature. It is the last outfit to which we should entrust control over our co-workers.
What does it say about the Futures Commission that it could spawn an idea so bad? We know and respect many of the members of the Futures Commission. We wonder if their prestige and their reputations are being used as cover for some very questionable proposals percolating out of the AOC.
This proposal isn’t a reform. It’s a naked power grab. If the Futures Commission wants to preserve any semblance of credibility, it needs to spike this idea now. Details on how and when you may register your objections to this ill-conceived proposal may be found at this link.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges