OPEN GOVERNMENT  -- With 5 p.m. Friday set as the deadline for submitting comments on proposed new rules providing public access to administrative records of judicial branch agencies, legislative scrutiny of statewide court administration is reaching an unprecedented pitch this week.

Yesterday, reports Robert Lewis in the Sacramento Bee, "Judges, law enforcement officials and union workers joined together to release an accountability plan for the Administrative Office of the Courts, calling on the Legislature to increase the agency's openness and ensure that state courts do not have to close one day a month."

"It seems to me that we ought to have our priorities," said Tom Hollenhorst,
associate justice of the state Court of Appeal, in a press briefing
announcing the accountability proposal. "You can't provide public
services when the courts are closed."
It was the latest salvo by
critics of the state's judicial branch leadership, who made the choice
this past summer to close state courts one day a month because of budget problems.
Recently, that criticism has grown beyond the internal group of judges,
courthouse workers and local law enforcement to include the other two
branches of government.

Much of the ferment traces to the actions of Chief Justice Ronald George, coping with what he saw upon first taking office.

After becoming chief justice in May 1996, George visited all 58
counties, traveling close to 13,000 miles, he said. Many still were
controlled locally, and many had significant money problems.
"There were courts that were going belly up," George said.

Alpine
County's court reported it had $8 in its bank account. Other more major
courts "weren't able to meet their basic fiscal requirements," he added.

"My responsibility was to get a permanent solution to this," George said.

So
he and his staff pushed to move the courts from more than 220 municipal
and superior court entities reliant on 58 counties to a uniform body
that answered to the state.

Ultimately the Legislature and voters agreed, approving the power shift in the late 1990s.As the state courts agency's responsibility grew, so did its staffing and budget.

At
the start of the 2003-04 fiscal year the administrative office had 528
budgeted positions. Today there are 1,065, of which 890 are filled,
according to office figures.

The central administrative office
budget also has grown from $99 million in 2003-04 – $119 million in
2009 dollars – to $134.4 million last fiscal year, according to
administrative office figures. The entire state judicial branch's
budget was $3.9 billion last year.

The growth is natural given
the agency's increased responsibility, Overholt said. The office now
controls 504 court facilities – about 17 million square feet of space –
handles finances for courts in 58 counties, provides legal counsel once
provided by county counsels, and maintains a statewide emergency plan,
Overholt said.

"We have an enormous system, and it has to be
adequately serviced," George said. "To me it's disingenuous for some
people to ignore the shift in responsibility."

But today, reports Howard Mintz in the San Jose Mercury News, "California's
court bureaucracy and leadership found itself under a
microscope for nearly six hours by an Assembly oversight committee
looking at possible bloat and secrecy in the judicial system."

The
Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, formed last year
to explore waste and inefficiency in state agencies, convened the
hearing to explore concerns about the state Administrative Office of
the Courts, the bureaucratic arm of the largest court system in the
country.

The committee decided to target the AOC because of mounting
criticism of its growth and spending at a time when the California
courts have been forced to cut millions from trial court budgets and
take the unprecedented step of closing courthouses on the third
Wednesday of each month to save money.

"My concern is about priorities," said Assemblywoman Audra Strickland, R-Moorpark, the vice chair of the committee.The
committee members, who noted that the AOC hearing attracted more
attention than any other probe they've conducted to date, specifically
are targeting two issues: the growth of the AOC during a period of
overall state budget deficits, and its spending on a unified technology
system for the courts that could reach $2 billion.

And today's Sacramento Bee carried a guest opinion piece expressing the same concern—written by a San Diego County Superior Court Judge Dan Goldstein.

The touchstone of the judiciary is transparency, accountability and
access to the courts. Judges must be responsible for the administration
of justice and must disclose not only how we make our decisions but why
we make our decisions. Judges make these decisions every day in open
court, on the record, subject to public scrutiny.

Further, it is
imperative that judges strive to ensure that all citizens, rich or
poor, strong or weak, injured and needy have access to the courts when
they most need it.


But the AOC, which controls the $3.66 billion budget for California's county trial courts, has operated outside of public oversight – with predictable results.

Consider this:

• As The Bee reported Sunday, massive cost overruns
and poor planning mean the new computer system estimated to cost $260
million could instead cost taxpayers more than $2 billion, and is still
years away from completion. That's equivalent to more than $1 million
per computer system for each judge in the state of California.

• According to the Department of Finance, the AOC
is at least three years from selling the first of $5 billion in bonds
to refurbish and rebuild courthouses – but is still taking hundreds of
millions in fees from county trial courts every year; fees that would
otherwise be used for court operations and keeping courts open to the
public.

• In July, the Judicial Council transferred $9.28 million to prevent cuts to court-appointed dependency council from funding sources that the AOC had previously said did not exist.

• While county courts have been forced to lay off employees, the AOC continues to hire high-priced employees. In fact, the AOC has grown from 490 to 901 since 2004, and continues to hire despite a hiring freeze. One-third of AOC employees earn at least $100,000 a year.

Massive
new spending on buildings and computer systems at a time when the
public is feeling the pinch cries out for a more open public debate.
Despite judges wanting to keep our courts open and safe, we have been
unable to move the AOC to focus its priorities and the taxpayers' money on transparent, accountable, open courts.

Unfortunately, the AOC's top administrators have grown accustomed to working in the dark. Unlike every other public agency in California, the AOC is not required to make its records, including its budgets, available to the public. The Judicial Council and the AOC
do not provide the public with meaningful opportunities to hear and
provide input on matters that affect us all, and there are no
independent audits of the AOC's books.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Fortunately, discussions to shine a light on the AOC will start in earnest today when the judiciary's top leaders come to Sacramento for a special hearing on accountability.

Here
are some conditions that the Legislature could set to make sure that
Californians are seeing the full picture on the judiciary:

• Insist that keeping California's courtrooms open and maintaining public services is the first priority of the courts.

• Provide the public access to administrative records, including budgets.

• Provide real opportunities for public input in decision-making.

• Require independent financial audits of both the AOC and the courts.