The Alliance of California Judges, a feisty band of rebels in robes, has complained for five years that the state’s judicial bureaucracy had become bloated, overpaid, arrogantly dismissive and incompetent.
The complaints largely fell on deaf ears at the San Francisco-based Judicial Council and Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and in the Governor’s Office.
Two chief justices, Ron George and successor Tani Cantil-Sakauye, tended to dismiss the judicial rebels as malcontents who didn’t understand the big picture and who were muddying their pleas for more operational money.
The infighting has been downright nasty, but ultimately, truth won out. Last week, the state auditor’s office issued a blistering report that fundamentally confirmed everything that the rebels had been saying.
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Auditor Elaine Howle found that the AOC indeed had lavished high salaries and fringe benefits on itself, beyond those of other state employees, and wasted money on unnecessary expenditures while trial courts throughout the state were being compelled to close their doors for a lack of money.
Howle also confirmed that the Judicial Council, which is supposed to oversee the nation’s largest court system, allowed the AOC’s bureaucracy to run amok.
Howle’s agency has criticized the Judicial Council and the AOC previously for, among other things, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on an inoperable statewide case-management system and fumbling construction of the Long Beach courthouse.
Taken together, the independent audits fully acquit the Alliance of California Judges, whose members courageously risked their judicial reputations by challenging the court hierarchy.
It is, in a sense, the unforeseen consequence of a state assumption of court finances some years back, believed at the time to be a welcome relief from dependence on county governments.
Overnight, 58 court systems became one, creating a massive new state agency that, it’s now evident, the Judicial Council and the AOC were ill-equipped to manage. And it was complicated by an assumption that the courts were an independent branch of government, free from direct control by the governor and the Legislature, even though they control how much money the courts receive.
What now? Despite the auditor’s criticism and Cantil-Sakauye’s assurances, it’s unlikely that the judicial hierarchy will reform itself. In fact, Howle says the responses she’s received to date are inadequate.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature could try to compel reform through the budget process, but they would risk being accused of violating the courts’ independence. It’s not unlike the flap between Brown and the supposedly independent University of California over financial priorities.
Whatever happens, the status quo is unacceptable.