Judges Seek Accountability, Transparency From AOC
By Amy Yarbrough 
Daily Journal Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO - Add another group to the list of critics pushing for greater accountability from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

A coalition of judges from throughout the state has been discussing, largely through emails, forming a new group aimed at forcing the agency to open up about its budget and operations to democratize the Judicial Council, policy-making body for the state's courts.

San Diego Judge Runston "Tony" Maino, who is among those involved in discussions with the new group, said judges may push for an independent audit of the AOC and to require that both the AOC and the Judicial Council be subject to the California Public Records Act. The judicial branch has long argued it is exempted from the act.

Maino said some judges he's heard from would also like a more open process of appointing members to the council. Presently, Chief Justice Ronald M. George appoints the majority of 27 members on Judicial Council.

The move comes just weeks after the Legislature, as part of the court-budget trailer bill, passed new rules that aim to provide the public with greater access to the agency's information. Like the new judicial coalition, that bill was a product of conflict over closing the state court's $393 million budget gap.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge David Goldstein, one of the leaders behind the proposed coalition, said judges began emailing each other soon after the AOC proposed in April to close the courts one extra day a month, pushing tens of thousands of court workers into unpaid furloughs. The closures, which apply to all courts in the state and the AOC, will begin in September.

Goldstein said judges have become even more concerned following what they see as attempts by the AOC and Judicial Council to increase their grip on local courts and an unwillingness on the part of the agency to provide specifics about its ballooning budget.

"It has everything to do with control," Goldstein said, adding that judges recognize the need to save money, but fear closing the courts will harm the public. "The judges I've talked to, while wanting to keep the courts open, are willing to take the furlough."

William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts, said the decision to close the courts was tough to make and points out that it was done during public judicial council meetings.

Although the judicial branch is not subject to the California Public Records Act, Vickrey said it makes every effort to publicize its meetings and allows for public comment. He said he welcomes any input the new group might have.

"These judges ought to be involved and their voices ought to be heard. If they find this association is the appropriate way to do that, that's certainly their right," Vickrey said.

The court-budget trailer bill, signed in July, includes language that will require the AOC to, among other things, release information on its revenues and expenditures for all four fiscal quarters. The AOC was previously only obligated to report that information for its first and last fiscal quarters.

Also contained in the court budget trailer bill was a provision that allows courts to record open court proceedings and monitor the performance of judges - a move Goldstein said angered many of the judges he's heard from. AOC officials later said that bill was not meant to apply to sitting judges, rather pro-tems, and that the Judicial Council planned to pass a rule of court to clarify the matter.

It is unclear whether the burgeoning judicial coalition will splinter from the California Judges Association, the professional organization that represents judicial officers throughout the state.

Yolo County Superior Court Judge Timothy Fall has not committed to joining the new group but has been following discussions. He said as a member of CJA executive board, he's been hearing from a number of constituents who'd like CJA to take stronger position on behalf of the local judges.

"I think a number of judges would like to have membership in CJA and not try to splinter off a new group, while they see a need for a new organization to take on an advocacy role," he said.

CJA's incoming president, Los Angeles Judge Michael Paul Vicencia, said no one from the group has contacted him. He said he and every single member of CJA's board is committed to openness in the judicial system.

"The branch as a whole should be more transparent," he said. "We owe it to the taxpayers whose money we spend."