Judges' war resumes in new year

Dan Walters
Sacramento Bee
Jan. 25, 2012

As the Legislature reconvened this month, California's judges resumed their civil war over money and power.

It pits Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the State Judicial Council, along with one faction of trial and appellate judges, against a rebellious faction, organized as the Alliance of California Judges, over how to allocate pain as the courts adjust to reduced financing.

An early political test for the combatants is Assembly Bill 1208, a rebel-sponsored bill that faces a deadline this week for approval by the Assembly. The measure, which would strengthen the authority of local judges vis-a-vis the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts, has been stalled for months.

For a profession that places high value on decorum and "judicial demeanor," the politicking has been nasty at times.

Cantil-Sakauye has remained publicly aloof from the fray, leaving the day-to-day maneuvering to her supporters, but there's little doubt that she is -- continuing the no-change position that predecessor Ronald George held -- helping organize opposition to the bill, which is being carried by the Assembly's Democratic floor leader, Charles Calderon.

Her faction has been peddling the concept that were AB 1208 to become law, it would threaten the independence of the judiciary. The rebels contend that her bureaucracy has been wasting money on a bloated staff, an unworkable computer system and courthouse construction program while trial courts are forced to reduce staff and services.

The rebel alliance has produced a 20-page white paper that lays out in detail what it regards as misappropriation of operational funds for the courts that leave them unable to cope with criminal and civil business.

The Judicial Council voted unanimously to formally oppose AB 1208 last month just as the politically influential Service Employees International Union, which represents many court employees, declared its support for it.

The conflict has not only divided the state's judiciary, with some local courts supporting the bill while others oppose it, but has also created strange bedfellows.

The SEIU finds itself, for instance, on the same side as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and other conservative groups. Democratic legislators are also divided, while Republicans tend to support the rebels.

It's uncertain what Gov. Jerry Brown would do if AB 1208 reaches his desk. The current budget slashes $350 million from courts but his proposed 2012-13 budget would spare them further cuts.

E-mail: dwalters@sacbee.com. Twitter: @WaltersBee.