Thursday, September 29, 2011
Trial Courts Need Tighter State Oversight—Legislative Analyst
By Sherri M. Okamoto, Staff Writer
The state should assert increased control over the operations of its 58 trial courts, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said yesterday.
The Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor, in a 20-page report, expressed concern that the realignment of the trial courts under the fiscal control of the state “to date has not ensured an efficient division of responsibilities between the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and individual trial courts….”
Existing legislation on trial court governance, the LAO said, does not “go far enough in providing the state sufficient control and oversight,” and has not been successful in fully implementing the goals and objective of the Legislature for the realignment process.
The report noted “an inherent conflict in the existing structure and governance of the state trial court system in that the state has full responsibility for paying employee-related costs but does not have full control over these costs” as the individual trial courts retain responsibility for their day-to-day operations, such as the allocation of funding within their own budgets, processing of cases, and hiring of personnel.
“Given that the trial courts are not the financial responsibility of the state, it is essential that the state have sufficient control over the operations of the trial courts to also effective control their costs,” the LAO said, and it recommended that legislation be adopted to place full responsibility for the trial court employment system to the state.
The report also raised concerns that “no analysis has been done to assess whether the current division of responsibilities [between the state and the trial courts] is cost-efficient,” so “it is not known if the state is missing opportunities for achieving greater efficiencies in trial court operations.”
‘Economies of Scale’
In order to “achieve the economies of scale from having a unified, state-run trial court system,” the report proposed that lawmakers “adopt statutory changes that direct AOC to provide the Legislature with an inventory of the specific services that are provided by each trial court and those that it provides, including the cost of providing each service,” and then have the Judicial Council issue recommendations “for assigning each service to the entity able to the deliver the service with the greatest efficiency.’
Such information, the LAO said, “would help the Legislature consider statutory changes to help clarify the responsibilities of AOC and the trial courts as well as any necessary budget adjustments to reflect these changes, which would likely result in budgetary savings.”
The report also endorsed the implementation of a trial court performance assessment program to “ensure accountability for achieving good outcomes,” such as CourTools, which has been implemented in courts in Arizona, Minnesota, Utah and Massachusetts.
This program, developed by the National Center for State Courts, “measures court performance in ten different areas such as satisfaction of stakeholders, a court’s ability to resolve cases in a timely manner, and average cost of processing a case.”
In 2007, the center and the AOC issued a joint endorsement of the adoption of the CourTools program in California, but it has only been piloted in four courts on a limited-term basis, and at present, “there is no comprehensive set of measurements for which data is collected on a statewide basis,” the LAO noted.
Without performance measurements to establish performance benchmarks, the LAO said, “it remains difficult to identify underperforming courts and best practices.”
The LAO recommended that the Legislature “specify in statute the specific performance measurements it believes are most important and require the Judicial Council to collect data on each measurement from individual trial courts on an annual basis” and later adopt a system for holding individual courts accountable for their performance relative to those standards.
“Given the massive investment that the state has made in establishing a state-run trial court system, we believe that the Legislature should seek to eliminate these barriers and provide the state with greater control and responsibility over trial courts, rather than undo the realignment of the trial courts,” the report concluded.
Just the opposite was proposed earlier this year by Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Industry, who introduced AB 1208, with the backing of the Alliance of California Judges, to increase administrative and financial autonomy for trial courts.
Calderon told the MetNews that the LAO report “begs the question of whether or not the Judicial Council can even manage a bureaucracy large enough to accomplish some of the recommendations that it made.”
He added that the report “was pretty much written by the time that I introduced my legislation” as it does not address more recent events, such as the controversy over the AOC’s oversight of the Judicial Council’s state-wide case management system, which Calderon panned as a “debacle.”
The assemblyman also expressed concern that he was unable to determine “where the report came from,” imparting that he had heard an analyst “started it three years ago” on a whim.
Calderon suggested his colleagues “take a look, in some formal way” into the process the LAO uses for determining what reports it pursues.
Kern Superior Court Judge David Lampe, speaking for the alliance, said yesterday that the LAO report should “ not be interpreted to put more centralized control of the courts in the hands of the AOC,” as “[t]hat model has been a failure—it puts the goose in charge of feeding the chickens.”
A statement from the alliance noted that “centralization of the courts has not lead to ‘economies of scale,’ but has instead lead to significant diseconomies, such as the ill-advised CCMS system that has cost the state $546 million to date, with no prospect of full deployment in this economy before it is obsolete.”
The group said it supports independent analysis of how to improve the trial court
System,” but insisted the AOC “should not be put in charge of that analysis, because the
AOC will invariably recommend proposals that enhance its role and diminish local autonomy.”
If such a project is undertaken, the alliance suggested it “be overseen by a select committee of the Legislature with an independent staff.”
Calderon also said he agreed with increased oversight by the Legislature as well.
A spokesperson for the Judicial Council and the AOC said the council had not yet had an opportunity to review the report. He remarked that he was “sure the members of the council will be very interested in studying it,” and declined further comment.
Efforts to reach Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Edmon or representatives of the California Judges Association yesterday were unsuccessful.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company