Legislator: Judicial Branch ‘Family’ Must Speak With One Voice on Proposals for Article VI Reforms
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The reforms to the judicial branch article of the state Constitution being heavily promoted by Chief Justice Ronald M. George will fail unless the state’s lawyers and judges unify behind them, a key legislator has told the California Judges Association.
Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Santa Ana, spoke Saturday at a sparsely attended forum held at the group’s annual convention in San Diego.
Dunn, who has worked closely with the State Bar of California and the Administrative Office of the Courts on many issues, warned that if attorneys and jurists begin quarreling publicly over the proposed reforms, that division will be exploited by special interest groups and legislative opponents to block the effort.
“This is a once in a hundred and some odd years opportunity,” Dunn said. “These don’t come along very often.”
George has urged revisions to Article VI of the Constitution which would allow the judicial branch to submit its own proposed budget directly to the Legislature and provide a method for calculating the base level of funding tied to the state appropriation limit. Any such changes would require voter approval.
But Dunn said the court community—which he called the judicial branch “family”—should not expect legislators to easily relinquish their power over the judicial branch budget.
“No person with power over another will give up that power voluntarily,” he warned. “When the real world stuff comes around, it won’t happen. This is our challenge.”
Opposition could also materialize, Dunn said, from labor and other special interest groups which have grown used to lobbying legislators in an effort to get them to exercise their power of the purse to push the groups’ agendas for court system changes.
“The judiciary must, must, must speak with one voice,” the legislator declared. “If there is division within the ranks...it will be exploited....You must come to a consensus internally and speak with one voice.”
George—departing from his prepared text—stressed in his address on the current state of the judiciary earlier Saturday that details of the proposed changes are still “all under discussion.” But AOC Administrative Director William Vickrey said at the CJA forum that that the state’s Judicial Council expects to reach a final decision on what provisions the reform proposal will include by the end of the year.
AOC Chief Deputy Director Ronald G. Overholt said after the forum that he expects the council to vote on the substance of the proposal’s provisions, though probably not specific language, when it meets in San Francisco Oct. 21.
A measure could be qualified for the ballot either through signature gathering or by winning legislative backing, and Overholt said it is unlikely a decision will be reached in October about which route to pursue.
Dunn said either path could be difficult. He estimated that a signature-gathering campaign would cost at least $1.5 million and “may end up somewhere around $3 or $4 million.”
Both the CJA and the State Bar of California have expressed concerns about various aspects of the original draft proposal, which was the subject of an AOC-sponsored conference in San Francisco in February.
The State Bar registered objections to the suggestion that it’s three appointments to the Judicial Council be reduced to recommendations, with the chief justice making the final choices. A proposal to require judges to undergo specified amounts of professional training drew CJA opposition.
An AOC “briefing document” distributed at the forum indicated that neither change is likely to be part of the final proposal. Also unlikely to be included, Vickrey said, is a proposal to change the terms of judges from six years to 10.
But a proposal to insulate newly appointed judges from facing “almost instant election” by establishing a two-year minimum before a new appointees needs to face a vote, panelist and CJA board member Brad Hill, a Fresno Superior Court judge, said.
Dunn urged the judges to consider not just what changes in Article VI they would like to see made, but also what provisions are likely to help the measure win voter approval. Inclusion of training requirements for the judiciary, Dunn suggested, would give the measure an aspect that could be effectively promoted to the electorate.
“We’ve got to sell this on what the voters want to hear, not what we want to tell them,” he declared.
He cautioned against seeking too aggressively to insulate the judicial branch from the influence of the governor and the Legislature, quoting an unnamed influential legislative staffer as commenting, upon reviewing some of the proposed changes:
“I believe in an independent judiciary, not an imperial judiciary.”
Dunn, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed disappointment at the turnout for the late Saturday afternoon forum. Only about 30 judges attended, after sessions earlier in the weekend drew as many as 200.
“This room ought to be packed,” he said.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge John M. Mize, whose term of office as CJA president ended earlier in the day, moderated the forum. In addition to Dunn, Vickrey, and Hill, Nevada Superior Court Judge C. Anders Holmer and Sen. Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno, also spoke.
Poochigian, the expected Republican candidate for attorney general, said he supported the judicial independence which is the professed goal of the reforms, but also warned against “judicial activism,” which he said “can result in weakening of respect for the institution” and “moves some to want to rein it in.”
“I am committed to an independent judiciary with stable funding. But donning robes and holding an esteemed office doesn’t insulate one from the judgments of the public.”
The CJA convention was held Thursday through Sunday at the San Diego Marriott, which also served as the headquarters for the State Bar of California convention and a statewide meeting of judicial branch officials. Organizers said about 5,000 people attended one or more of the three meetings, most of them attorneys looking to earn MCLE credits in courses offered by the State Bar.
A CJA official said 520 judges attended that group’s convention, and an AOC spokesperson said overall attendance at the judicial branch conference, including the judges and other court officials, exceeded 1,200.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company