Tuesday, October 4, 2011

LAO Calls for More Centralized Court Budgeting Authority

The state Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) entered the year-long battle between the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and dissident local judges last week (September 28) with the issuance of  its report on "Completing the Goals of Trial Court Realignment."

The report addresses the issue of how well trial court consolidation enacted by the Legislature in the mid-1990's (see AB 233, Escutia and Pringle, Chapter 850, Statutes of 1997 - known and cited by its terms as the "Lockyer–Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997") has worked, and concludes that significant problems remain, beginning with a balkanized system of determining pay, benefits and working conditions for court employees, and "inadequate state oversight over trial court performance." The report includes several recommendations to address these concerns, most involving expanding the authority of the AOC.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and
Assemblymember Charles Calderon
The report was immediately condemned by the Alliance of California Judges, which is sponsoring legislation (AB 1208) by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon to do exactly the opposite - i.e., to remove funding authority from the AOC and Judicial Council, and vest it instead in each of the 58 local courts. The Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported that Calderon and the alliance were highly critical of the  LAO’s recommendations, and particularly the report’s failure to mention the controversy over the AOC’s oversight of the CCMS state-wide case management system, which Calderon called a “debacle” (though as Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters noted in his column of October 2, 2011, "the report did confirm one of the ACJ's most common complaints – that the has grown exponentially since realignment began, from a budget of $77 million and 244 employees in 1997 to $362 million and 960 staffers now."

The California Judges Association (CJA) issued even a more firmly worded objection to the LAO report, saying it was "opposed to this complete centralization and encroachment upon the constitutional authority of local trial courts."  CJA said that the report "reflects a fundamental failure to understand and acknowledge that our democracy is based upon the existence of three co-equal and separate branches of government. The judicial branch is not merely a state department under the direction of the executive or legislative branch, nor can it be centralized in the same ways as other branches of government."

The AOC and Supreme Court, on the other hand, have elected to downplay the report.  Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued a statement saying that while the report had "appropriately engendered much discussion within the branch," the courts have more immediate and important concerns at the moment, in the form of the court funding crisis. "By necessity, the Judicial Council has been laser focused on budget matters," the Chief Justice said. "Ensuring public access to courts by restoring the judicial branch budget remains our main concern at this time and for the foreseeable future.”

Notwithstanding the Chief Justice's efforts to minimize the issues raised by the LAO report, however, the matter almost certainly will take center stage in January, 2012, when AB 1208 faces a constitutional deadline to either be approved by the Assembly or die by operation of law.

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