Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Dissident Judges Organization Calls on Chief Justice to Divert Technology Funds, Cut Staffing Costs
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Alliance of California Judges, a group that has openly challenged centralization of the state’s judiciary, has issued a letter to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye urging her to consider diverting funds slated for technology projects and the Judicial Council’s staff agency to court operations in order to offset the governor’s proposed budget cuts to the judicial branch.
The letter, penned by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan on the alliance’s behalf and dated Thursday, predicted that the $200 million cut set forth in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2011-12 fiscal year budget “will lead to lay-offs, court closures, and reduced public access to the judiciary if fiscal responsibility is not restored swiftly and responsibly.”
Horan insisted that “access to the courts has to be the primary goal in sensibly evaluating the judicial budget, since without access there can be no justice,” and asked the chief justice to “review and advocate reconsideration of the December 14, 2010 decision of the Judicial Council to divert $143.409 million for technology projects, and technology infrastructure maintenance, and operations rather than having those funds available to ensure the courts remain open.”
He also requested that Cantil-Sakauye “take measures to reduce the budget of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) by at least 25% to match the figure Governor Brown promised to reduce annual spending in his own office.”
The Judicial Council and AOC have been under fire from various sources—including the alliance, former Presiding Judge Charles W. “Tim” McCoy, and labor unions—for pursuing the development of a statewide case management system known as CCMS.
CCMS was originally projected to cost around $260 million, but that amount has been predicted to ultimately run to about $2 billion. Court officials have remained committed to implementing the program, which will provide a central platform connecting courts with each other, the public, and other government agencies.
Ron Overholt, chief deputy director of the courts, has insisted the “old and antiquated” case management system currently in place needs to be updated, and that it would be “a waste of investment” to abandon the project before completion.
Critics have also attacked the AOC for its ongoing growth, which Horan called “unwarranted and irresponsible.” He contended the AOC should be “critically evaluated and reduced to ‘necessary staff’ in order to ensure elimination of waste and to direct funds to the trial courts to keep the doors to justice open to our citizens.”
Overholt previously responded to criticism regarding AOC personnel by insisting the agency was “doing our part,” by implementing a mandatory furlough program for staff and a hiring freeze.
A spokesperson for the state courts had “no official comment” on the letter.
Text of Group’s Letter to Chief Justice
January 13, 2011
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Supreme Court of California
350 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-4797
Dear Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye:
The release Monday of Governor Brown’s budget reveals with unmistakable clarity the nature of California’s dire financial situation. Late last year former Chief Justice Ron George asserted, Without doubt, California’s court system now is in a far stronger position to weather the challenges ahead than it was when I became Chief Justice 14 years ago.” It is now unambiguously apparent this proclamation was inaccurate. The just announced non-negotiable $200 million in unallocated cuts to the judiciary will lead to lay-offs, court closures, and reduced public access to the judiciary if fiscal responsibility is not restored swiftly and responsibly. There can be no legitimate dispute that access to the courts has to be the primary goal in sensibly evaluating the judicial budget, since without access there can be no justice.
Your quote from Tuesday’s Daily Journal article by Emily Green, “It’s deep, it’s grave, and it’s alarming to us,” supports a re-evaluation of previous financial decisions in light of this new fiscal reality.
The Alliance of California Judges (ACJ) urges you to review two areas in particular that would likely prevent the public from suffering limited access to our third branch of government. First, we ask you to review and advocate reconsideration of the December 14, 2010 decision of the Judicial Council to divert $143.409 million for technology projects, and technology infrastructure maintenance, and operations rather than having those funds available to ensure the courts remain open.
This money was taken from the Modernization Fund ($28.283 million), the Improvement Fund ($27.079 million), and the Trial Court Trust Fund (TCTF) ($88.047 million) and allocated in significant part to the highly controversial and woefully over budget ($250 million initial cost estimates to $1.3 billion in the latest revision) California Case Management System (CCMS). Restoring the unencumbered portion to trial court operations would help avoid closures, save jobs, and ward off furloughs of necessary courtroom staff.
Second, the ACJ also requests you to take measures to reduce the budget of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) by at least 25% to match the figure Governor Brown promised to reduce annual spending in his own office. California Lawyer magazine reported in its most recent edition, “In 1998 the AOC’s budget was about $77 million; last year it was $138.9 million—or if you include the court facilities budget, $320 million. The AOC’s staffing has increased from 268 full-time employees in 1998 to 878 as of last March, and about a quarter of those workers are paid $100,000 a year or more.”
The continued growth of the AOC in the past two years, together with “merit salary adjustments” (more commonly known as pay raises) awarded late last year to approximately 80% of the employees of that administrative body, retroactive to July 1, 2010, exemplifies the type of growth that the ACJ and the public views as unwarranted and irresponsible. Responsible fiscal policy requires the entire AOC to be critically evaluated and reduced to “necessary staff” in order to ensure elimination of waste and to direct funds to the trial courts to keep the doors to justice open to our citizens.
We trust the ACJ’s priority of ensuring court access to the general public is shared not only by you, but also by the Judicial Council, which has the obligation and ability to take swift corrective action.
Judge Charles E. Horan, on behalf of The Directors of the Alliance of California Judges
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company