ACJ Response to Futures Commission “Concepts”

Posted on February 3, 2016

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Set forth below is a letter sent to Justice Carol Corrigan, chair of the Chief Justice’s Futures Commission.

The Commission is accepting public comment on 15 concepts in advance of a public hearing scheduled for February 8-9. Many of these concepts, conceived behind closed doors with the assistance of AOC staff, will harm the Judicial Branch and should be permanently shelved.

We encourage you to weigh in on these issues before it’s too late. The Commission is scheduled to meet when most of us will be in our courtrooms doing our jobs, but it is essential that judges be heard on these concepts. We are concerned that the Commission may interpret silence to be acceptance. You may submit your own individual comment by sending an email to FuturesCommission@jud.ca.gov.

Directors, Alliance of California Judges

_________________________________________________

Honorable Carol A. Corrigan
Chair, Commission on the Future of California’s Court System
455 Golden Gate Ave.
San Francisco, CA  94102

Dear Justice Corrigan:

We are the Alliance of California Judges, a group of 500 judges committed to the preservation of judicial independence and the reform of our branch administration. We offer these comments in response to the 15 “concepts” offered for discussion at the Futures Commission’s upcoming meeting.

At the outset, we note our fundamental disagreement with the basic premise reflected in much of the Commission’s commentary on these concepts—that the problems confronting our branch stem from a lack of uniform practices and central control. Proposals include systems to be implemented statewide, including “a transferable case management methodology to support all courts throughout the state.” Many of these suggested approaches feel like the time-worn ideas long promoted by the AOC. Our concern is that the work of the Commission is being driven by the AOC’s agenda to impose uniformity and extend its reach into local court operations.

We have a different philosophy. The mentality that bigger is better, central control is better than local administration, and uniformity is better than diversity, is what led to a series of administrative disasters culminating in the spectacular failure of CCMS. It’s what caused the AOC staff to mushroom in size from 225 positions in 1992 to over 1100 employees and temps in 2010. It’s what led the State Auditor to conclude in 2015 that the AOC has “spent Judicial Branch funds in a questionable manner” and has “not sufficiently justified its current budget and staffing levels.”

We have these comments as to certain specific concepts:

Concept 3 involves “trial court administrative support.” The stated goal of this concept is to “[e]xplore and identify the most cost effective staffing model for the provision of trial court administrative services.” The authors point out that “trial courts have complete budgetary discretion regarding how they staff to provide [administrative] services.” We don’t consider local discretion over budgetary matters, or local variation in “staffing models,” to be a problem.

We read this concept, and the one that follows, as a push for expanding AOC control over local trial court operations.

The drive for expanding the role of central administration runs counter to the letter and the spirit of Government Code, § 77001, which requires the Judicial Council to establish “a decentralized system of trial court management” and provides for “local authority and responsibility of trial courts to manage day-to-day operations” and “[c]ountywide administration of the trial courts.” It also flies in the face of the SEC report, which envisioned a smaller central bureaucracy more responsive to local needs.

We believe that local court leaders are in the best position to manage their budgets and run their courts. We are disappointed that the Commission is not considering a fee-for-service approach for the AOC—as recommended by the State Auditor in her 2015 report—which would allow local courts to decide which services they receive from our central administration, paying only for those services.

Concept 4 encompasses “trial court employment and labor relations.” The authors complain of the “great variation in trial court terms and conditions of employment” and urge the Commission to rethink “existing labor practices” in order to flatten out “court-to-court variations in employment terms and conditions.” The Commission will explore “the costs and benefits of different models of bargaining.” The commentary specifically includes statewide labor bargaining as a potential strategy.

We join with our court staff in expressing our grave concern with this suggested approach. Given the wide variation in how our local courts operate, we question whether statewide uniformity in labor practices is workable or desirable. Moreover, we’re concerned about the encroachment of the AOC into local court management through statewide collective bargaining. The AOC can’t engage in statewide bargaining unless it has statewide authority over labor issues such as compensation, hiring and discipline. If we give the AOC the authority to negotiate contracts on a statewide level, we surrender local control over human resource management.

Concept 5 is a call for “a cost-effective official record in all case types.” We read this concept as a disturbing push for more electronic recording in our courtrooms and fewer court reporters. We firmly believe that a certified shorthand reporter preparing a paper transcript provides the most accurate record for the parties and the strongest bulwark against false complaints of judicial misconduct. Anyone who has listened to an electronic recording of a court proceeding knows that it is no substitute for a reporter’s transcript. Moreover, further steps to reduce compensation to reporters will leave California struggling to find certified reporters, already a huge problem in states like Illinois and Pennsylvania, leaving courts with no option but to compromise due process by using unreliable and undecipherable electronic recordings.

We find one sentence in the commentary for Concept 6—“Technology-Enhanced Courts Proceedings and Online Transactions”—particularly frightening:

“Courts are unable to share information across jurisdictions and some are even unable to share information within the same jurisdiction, due to incompatible case management systems. . . .”  [Emphasis added.]

We are deeply concerned that the Commission will propose a statewide case management system along the lines of CCMS, the failed technology project that cost the taxpayers half a billion dollars and brought our branch to the brink of financial ruin. According to the latest human resource metrics, the AOC currently employs the equivalent of 143 full-time employees in information technology. We are dismayed that the Commission contemplates an even greater role for our central administrators in technology management when they should be looking to vacate the field.

We are disappointed that the Commission will not be considering many of the proposals set forth in the 2012 SEC report or the 2015 state audit. Nothing suggests that the Commission even considered an audit of the billions in court construction funds, scaling back the AOC’s staffing levels, or moving the AOC’s headquarters to Sacramento, let alone the fee-for-service model or the democratization of the Council itself. We sincerely hope that the Commission will take up these ideas in the weeks ahead.

Sincerely,

Judge Steve White

President