Judges' war gets new ammo from legislative analyst

Dan Walters
Sep. 30, 2011
Sacramento Bee

The Legislature's budget analyst has waded into the political war between the state court system's San Francisco-based leadership including Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and hundreds of local trial court judges.

While not overtly taking sides in the power struggle between the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the rebellious Alliance of California Judges (ACJ), a lengthy report by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor's office, issued this week, seems to side with the former over the latter on one key issue.

It suggests that the 58 local Superior Court systems' control over their employees be shifted, instead, to the AOC and the Judicial Council, which Cantil-Sakauye heads, saying it would create a more uniform and efficient system.

That raised alarm bells among ACJ leaders. "We are concerned that the LAO report not be interpreted to put more centralized control of the courts in the hands of the AOC (because) that model has been a failure; it puts the goose in charge of feeding the chickens," Kern County Judge David Lampe said in a statement.

The ACJ rebellion began under Cantil-Sakauye's predecessor, Ron George, with critical judges charging that he, through the Judicial Council and the AOC, had created a bloated and self-serving bureaucracy that starved local courts of funds while pursuing a grandiose but unworkable centralized computer system.

The two factions have also clashed over the AOC's massive courtroom construction program and other aspects of the system that was created more than a decade ago when the state assumed full financial responsibility for what had been locally managed courts, but left many aspects unsettled.

The legislative analyst's report was aimed at how well that "trial court realignment" has worked, and concluded that significant problems remain, including a decentralized system of determining pay, benefits and working conditions for court employees, who remained largely tied to county personnel systems.

The report did confirm one of the ACJ's most common complaints that the AOC has grown exponentially since realignment began, from a budget of $77 million and 244 employees in 1997 to $362 million and 960 staffers now.

Finally, the LAO report sets the stage for another showdown, proposing that the Legislature undertake a "comprehensive trial court performance assessment program."

The ACJ says it welcomes "independent analysis" but opposes allowing the rival AOC to control the study.

It is, indeed, time for the Legislature to step in and settle this feud, which consumes way too much energy that should be directed into helping the courts cope with an era of diminished public resources.

The ACJ's proposal to have "a select committee of the Legislature with an independent staff" do the assessment makes a lot of sense.


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