By Katy Grimes
A scorching report from California State Auditor Elaine Howle found that the Administrative Office of the Courts, now called the Judicial Council, spent $386 million over four years on statewide services that nearly half of California’s 58 trial courts don’t use – including $186 million on contractors and consultants.
Remember that the Administrative Office of the Courts was responsible for the debacle of the failed $2 BILLION California courts computer system, paid with money allotted for state trial court operations. This unbelievably high cost was spent on the faulty computer system while courtrooms closed, courthouse employees furloughed, and criminal and civil cases take record time to come to trial.
The AOC’s primary function is to provide services to the courts. However, rather than making immediate corrections as the State Auditor recommended, following the damning report, the Administrative Office of the Courts began a process to strip away authority from the independent Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee for trial court funds decision making, and give it to the insider AOC Judicial Council’s Committee on Accountability and Efficiency — the same committee that approved big raises for top AOC officials as its first official action under its then-chair, Justice Cantil-Sakauye.
Changing the Rules Midstream
One of the improvements recommended to the AOC Judicial Council by the State Auditor recommended is to increase transparency. The auditor said the AOC Judicial Council “should conduct a more thorough review of the AOC’s implementation of the directives that resulted from the evaluation committee’s recommendations by more closely scrutinizing the AOC’s actions.”
Instead of heeding the auditor’s advice, the serious proposed change in authority and decision making was not noticed in an “eblast” as is standard and customary procedure from the AOC on every other matter. The proposed change was quietly placed on the Judicial Council’s website for comment. Fortunately, members of the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee discovered this, including directors of the Alliance of California Judges, who launched an aggressive campaign to put an end to this gross power grab.
In addition to taking budgetary authority from the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee, the proposed rule would also eliminate the role of the Accountability and Efficiency Committee in reviewing compensation for AOC employees, ostensibly because the Council is already conducting that review with the help of a hired consultant.
The Alliance of California Judges points out that the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee is the advisory body in the best position to speak for the trial courts. Its 34 members include a healthy mix of representatives from large and small counties. Accountability and Efficiency Committee, by contrast, has only 14 members. Its chair and vice-chair are appellate court justices, not trial court judges.
The Alliance of California Judges met recently in San Francisco and voted to oppose the AOC’s proposed amendment to Rule 10.63.
Blistering State Audit Ignored – Again
Recently the Accountability Committee approved a $5.6 million request to hire more technology staff to plug security holes. This was highlighted by another State Auditor report over a year ago. Yet 108 full-time employees and 51 contractors already work in the AOC’s Information Technology Services Office.
The State Auditor said, “The Judicial Council did not ensure that the financial advisory committee fulfilled its intended purpose. . . . It is unclear how the financial advisory committee can ensure accountability of the AOC when it does not exist independently of the AOC, it does not review the AOC’s expenditures, and the AOC can override the financial advisory committee’s recommendations to the Judicial Council.”
The proposed rule change defies the Auditors observations and recommendations. The Alliance of California Judges says the Accountability and Efficiency Committee is among the most secretive of the Judicial Council’s advisory bodies. According to its website, the committee met twice in 2014 and twice in 2015. Each of those meetings was conducted “by electronic means,” and a portion of each meeting was closed. By contrast, the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee meets far more frequently and its meetings are open.
Additionally, the proposed rule change would actually remove authority away from the Accountability and Efficiency Committee, and actually serve to remove any responsibility of the Accountability and Efficiency Committee to review the AOC’s compensation structure, ostensibly because “[t]he Judicial Council already is involved in review of Judicial Council staff compensation.”
The State Auditor’s report uncovered rampant bloat in AOC salaries:
“For example, we identified about $30 million in questionable compensation and business practices over a four-year period, plus additional savings if the AOC were to consolidate its operations in one location,” the State Auditor reported. “In particular, the AOC provides its staff with generous salaries and benefits: The average salary for AOC employees is about $82,000, while salaries in the executive branch average $62,000 and those in four large trial courts average $71,000. Furthermore, at a salary of over $179,000, the AOC pays eight of its nine office directors more than the governor and other high-ranking state officials receive, yet those officials have much broader responsibilities. The AOC also provides some employees certain benefits that exceed those in the executive branch, including paying some employees’ shares of their retirement contributions at a total cost of more than $858,000 over a four-year period.”
The Alliances of California Judges says the AOC’s “classification and compensation study,” farmed out to a private vendor, is already behind schedule, and recommends, along with the auditor, that somebody outside the AOC inner circle should have input in how the AOC pays its staff. Many of the judges say despite its many committees, the Judicial Council has become nothing more than an echo chamber. ”Dissenting voices are silenced or disregarded,” the judges say.
The Alliances of Judges said when the State Auditor recommended changes to the Rules of Court that would bolster the advisory committee’s responsibilities and composition, the Auditor certainly did not envision the removal of authority from an open, more responsive body to a reclusive and ineffective one.
The proposal, if enacted, would serve as cover for the transfer of power to a less representative, less responsive body that conducts its business in secret and that can more easily be dominated by the AOC. Given the many failures of governance identified by the State Auditor and the Strategic Evaluation Committee, the proposed change is a move in the wrong direction by a body determined to continue operating in secrecy, with little or no accountability.