“The judges were called ‘clowns,’ then they were called ‘stupid,’ then the director was sullen and grim and called their proposals ‘insulting.’ Thus begins the tale of determined Los Angeles trial judges in their campaign to gain entry to the quiet, art-filled hallways and well-appointed suites in San Francisco where California’s judicial upper crust holds court. The report that chronicles that campaign reflects a build-up of frustration and anger during the 14-year tenure of the previous chief justice in California, Ron George, who made it his mission to centralize the state courts. Along the way, he created a bureaucracy that grew and grew, eventually squashing the council of judges that is supposed to oversee that bureaucracy and advise the chief justice.”
So reported Bill Girdner for Courthouse News Service as part of an extensive look yesterday at the surprising dysfunction in the governance of the state’s judicial branch, marked repeatedly by staff controls over which judges get to join which decisional bodies, how much information they are provided and when, if and when they are permitted to discuss the issues in meetings with their peers, and other restraints on independent deliberation that would never be tolerated in either the legislature or policy bodies in state or local government. Key themes: no transparency, no questions, no dissent.
With a meeting coming up Wednesday to decide where the axe will bite after the Legislature’s $350 million cut to California’s court budget, money matters are at the forefront of discussion in figuring out how the courts got into the fix they’re in, and where to go from here.
“The trial court budget group will be asking a lot of really hard questions about how much money there is in various funds,” said Los Angeles Presiding Judge Lee Edmon, who is part of the budget group. “While we are interested in what information the staff brings to the meeting, we will be asking for a lot of additional information on how to proceed to solve these problems.”
Edmon said she had not been aware that the meeting is closed to the press. “It is important to be transparent,” she said, adding that the issues will come up before the Judicial Council in an open meeting.
Earlier this year, Edmon appointed a group of leaders from the Los Angeles court to put together a report California’s chief justice intended to provide substance to the complaints that the court bureaucracy badly needed reform and provide examples as opposed to general grumbling.
In one section of the report that was obtained only recently, the Los Angeles judges point out that the budget working group is controlled by top bureaucrats instead of the elected judges who are constitutionally empowered to decide court policy.
“That working group reports to the administrative director, not to the Judicial Council,” said the L.A. report. “Insofar as that important working group has any input into council deliberations, representations are made by the AOC staff as to the views of the working group.”
Judge Carolyn Kuhl, who is the supervising judge for civil matters in Los Angeles, put together the report as head of a small committee made up of leaders in the Los Angeles court.
“It is true that one of the things we say is that the council should hear on budget matters from a budget working group that is operating with sufficient information to provide real input from the trial courts as opposed to simply giving approval to whatever recommendation the staff makes with information that supports only that conclusion,” said Kuhl in an interview. “This should not be a group that reports to the AOC staff and then the AOC staff reports to the council,” she added. “This should be a group that reports directly to the council.”
The new chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, was appointed late last year by the outgoing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and she has pledged a top to bottom review of the bureaucracy, called the Administrative Office of the Courts. As part of that review, she sent a survey to the trial judges asking them in essence what was wrong with the way the California courts are run and how to fix it. Based on answers coming back from Sacramento, Orange County and Los Angeles, she is getting an earful.
Bureaucrats v. Judges
Starting with a description of a string of insults and maneuvers to shut them up, the 17-page report from Los Angles is gathered from the stories and comments of the court’s judges. They lay out the tactics used by the civil service bureaucrats to influence and ultimately dominate the Judicial Council that has the constitutional job of deciding California court policy.
“One theme that emerges is the overwhelming sense that Administrative Office of the Courts staff, under prior leadership, has felt it could do whatever was required to reach a presupposed result, regardless of the means,” said the report.
The report also describes a fundamental combat between judges and bureaucrats over information and the ability to speak freely. The judges on the council cannot consult with each other and the information that reaches them is controlled through a bag of tricks, say the report’s authors, with AOC staff standing guard at all gateways of communication.
“Council members lack sufficient opportunity to talk directly with each other without being `overseen’ and managed by staff,” says the report. “Flow of information is carefully controlled.” “Although Council members have suggested that a portion of each issues meeting be set aside for Council members to be able to address each other directly,” said the report, “the suggestion was rejected.”
Judges are not told the agenda for council meetings ahead of time, nor are they given the materials ahead of time. So they can’t prepare questions.
“Council meetings are short,” the report continues, “and are organized to rush though discussions. Materials concerning issues of greatest significance, particularly on financial matters, are provided only days or hours before the meeting, and sometimes only at the beginning of a Council meeting or during the meeting itself.”
Presentations at council meetings are usually scripted affairs, providing reasons only to follow the course of action suggested by the staff. Important issues get buried by reams of material on “topics of only symbolic importance.”
Plotting a Solution
A first attachment to the report lists a number of specific solutions that are best understood in light of the slights and manipulation of the past.
The council should allow any judge a chance to speak at council meetings — without being required to submit a script in advance. And their should be a rule to that effect. said one suggestion.
The practice of routinely supplying Council members with crucial or potentially controversial written materials only at the last minute must end,” said another.
A number of limitations to the director’s power are also recommended.
“Neither the head of the AOC nor AOC staff should be permitted to appoint any judge or commissioner to any AOC or other committee,” says the first attachment.
“Further, the head of the AOC should not be permitted to appoint any local court staff to any AOC committee or other activity without first obtaining approval that person’s local presiding judge.”
Council meetings should be scheduled more often and their should be time for the council to talk things over “without AOC staff present,” said a third recommendation. “The Judicial Council should be required by rule to conduct annual, comprehensive, formal performance reviews of the head of the AOC.”