The Legislature should not meddle in the internal affairs of the judiciary. A bill headed to a vote in the Assembly on Monday would do exactly that, and should be rejected.
California's judicial branch has been battered by the recession, like the rest of state government. Trial courts have taken the brunt of the beating. They lost $350 million in the current state budget cycle. This is on top of nearly $300 million in cuts absorbed over the last five years. Courtrooms have been closed temporarily, and hundreds of court employees laid off.
Some beleaguered judges blame the Administrative Office of the Courts, which they see as profligate and out of touch. They also have turned their anger at the Judicial Council, which sets policy for courts statewide.
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, a Whittier Democrat, is pushing a bill, Assembly Bill 1208, on behalf of a secretive group of judges called the Alliance of California Judges and the Service Employees International Union, which represents courthouse employees. Alliance leaders say they represent 400 judges, but won't reveal names, claiming that the jurists might suffer retribution.
Calderon's bill would shift funding authority away from the Judicial Council and require that state funds be allocated by formula to the county trial courts instead. Some of the judges' criticism of the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Judicial Council is legitimate, but this measure goes too far.
Fifteen years ago, landmark legislation transformed the judiciary from a county-based system to a statewide system. It was the right thing to do.
A jumble of different procedures and rules that changed from county to county was made uniform. Access to justice became more equal, whether litigants filed their divorce papers in Yolo or San Francisco, or their lawsuit in Sacramento or Riverside, or faced criminal charges in Modoc or Los Angeles counties.
The power of the purse resides with the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, who heads the Judicial Council, most of whose members the chief justice picks.
But critics say that under the new statewide structure, too much money was siphoned from the core functions of the trial courts to pet projects of the Judicial Council.
Dissident judges were particularly incensed when a statewide court computer project ballooned from its original estimate of $290 million to $1.9 billion.
Despite real problems, the overall structure of the court system is fundamentally sound.
To alter it by returning more autonomy to county courts would be a mistake. And most people who practice regularly in California courtrooms know that. Opposition to AB 1208 includes 44 of 58 presiding judges of the county courts.
Defense attorneys oppose the bill, as do plaintiffs' lawyers and an organization that represents big business interests that are targets of lawsuits.
These interests fiercely oppose each other in courtrooms, but are united in their opposition to this bill. Lawmakers must not ignore that.
Calderon introduced his bill as Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was taking the reins of the state judiciary. She has made an effort to meet with the dissidents difficult, given the fact that alliance judges chose to keep their membership secret.
Nonetheless, Cantil-Sakauye has placed some alliance judges who have revealed their identities on state court committees. She has surveyed every presiding judge in the state to get feedback on what they think are the problems. She says she is working to implement their recommendations.
Dissident judges need to let those steps take hold. They should not let the Legislature meddle with the judicial branch's independence.