Questionable financial and operational decisions by the administrative arm of California’s judiciary has limited the amount of money available to the courts, a new state audit has found.
State Auditor Elaine Howle found the Judicial Council did not adequately oversee the Administrative Office of the Courts in managing its budget and allowed dubious business practices, including generous staff salaries and benefits.
“To maximize funding available to the courts, we expected that the Judicial Council and the AOC would have carefully scrutinized their operations and expenditures to ensure they were necessary, justified and prudent,” Howle wrote in a letter. “However, we found that this was not always the case.”
The audit held the Judicial Council, which has policy authority over the judiciary, responsible for not always spending its multibillion dollar budget in the public’s best interest after recession-driven budget cuts resulted in dozens of courthouse closures and thousands of layoffs.
The conclusions echo barbed criticisms of the Judicial Council in recent years by the Alliance of California Judges, a group that has vocally opposed the administration over spending decisions it considers wasteful and harmful to local trial courts.
“We still have work to do,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the Judicial Council, wrote in a letter to the judiciary. “As you know, the hallmark of the judicial branch is its deliberative process – and it’s a process we will adhere to as we evaluate the audit’s policy recommendations.”
Cantil-Sakauye announced the creation of a working group to review the auditor’s recommendations and report to the Judicial Council in February.
The auditor’s report identified $30 million in “questionable compensation and business practices” over a four-year period, plus potential savings of $5 million or more per year if the AOC were to consolidate its operations in Sacramento.
Among the items highlighted: average employee salaries of $82,000 and eight office directors who earn more than the governor’s annual $177,467 salary; savings of $7.2 million annually if about 70 contractors and temporary employees were replaced with state employees; and a fleet of 66 vehicles that had not been justified as necessary.
The audit also noted that the AOC spent about $386 million on behalf of trial courts over the last four fiscal years using the trial courts’ local appropriations, but a portion of those payments could have come from its own state appropriations instead.
“As a consequence, an indeterminate amount of additional funds might have been available to support the courts,” the report stated.
The Alliance of California Judges released a statement calling the Judicial Council an “over-bloated bureaucracy” that had “lost touch with its primary mission of advising the courts.”
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, one of the group’s directors, said they were not surprised by the audit’s finding and would push for an oversight council of democratically elected trial judges.
“Our leaders need to embrace reform,” Gilliard said. “It is a complete and utter state of denial. ... There’s no check or balance on the current system.”
The Service Employees International Union, which represents many court workers, pushed for the audit. Michelle Castro, SEIU’s director of government relations, said union members had complained for years that funding was not adequately filtering down to the courts, and they were suffering from understaffing and diminished services in the wake of recession-era budget cuts.
“The auditor gave us a nice path for change,” Castro said. “It would be bringing back people, opening courthouses that have been closed, re-upping hours.”
The audit recommended that the Judicial Council conduct regular reviews of the AOC’s compensation practices and transfer any savings to the trial courts. It also called for the creation of a separate advisory body to bring more transparency to the AOC’s spending and regular surveys to ensure that the administration’s services align with the needs of the courts.
In a response, recently appointed administrative director Martin Hoshino agreed with many of the recommendations and said he would forward them to the Judicial Council for consideration.
“I agree with efforts to ensure that Judicial Branch funds are expended in a fiscally and legally prudent manner,” he wrote, noting that some of the recommendations were already underway after a 2011 strategic evaluation of the judiciary, including efforts to increase the Judicial Council’s oversight.
The auditing team was not satisfied with those promises.
“We are concerned that the AOC’s assertion that it will review its current policies ... without proposing a specific plan – suggests that meaningful change will not occur,” the team wrote. “(The) Judicial Council’s role in making certain critical decisions has been more ministerial than substantive, in part because the Judicial Council relies heavily on the AOC to make prudent budget decisions and to provide it with thorough information.”
Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg, who was appointed to the Judicial Council in 2012, welcomed the input but said most of the issues raised in the audit had already been identified.
“The governance of the judicial branch is so different today than it was four or five years” ago, he said. “The chief justice has initiated so many changes.”
Rosenberg added that the audit covered less than 5 percent of the judiciary’s budget – “a bucket of water in Lake Tahoe” – and would not resolve its funding problems.
“We have 2,000 trial judges. I don’t think we’ll ever satisfy 2,000 trial judges,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.