Monday, June 27, 2011
Court Report Endorses Decentralization of Branch Governance
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A proposal prepared by a committee of Los Angeles Superior Court judges disseminated among their colleagues on Friday called on branch leaders to decentralize court governance and increase oversight of the Administrative Office of the Courts through the appointment of a bench officer as CEO.
The May 9 report, drafted by Judges Carolyn Kuhl, Jacqueline Connor, Burt Pines, Michael P. Vicencia, and former Presiding Judges Robert A. Dukes, Charles W. McCoy and William A. MacLaughlin at the request of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, recognized that “many judges currently have a negative perception of the Judicial Council’s and the AOC’s performance,” which was attributable to “the overwhelming sense” that branch leadership “has felt that it could do whatever was required to reach a certain presupposed result, regardless of the means employed to reach those ends.”
The report’s authors cautioned that “[u]ntil court governance and administration act in accordance with principles that judges accept—adherence to law, opportunity to be heard, candor, collegiality, transparent, accountability and respect for the judicial office—there will be widespread judicial dissatisfaction with Branch governance.”
Based on the results of an anonymous online survey of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s judges—which garnered 125 responses and 10 comments communicated directly to the committee members, as well as a member survey conducted by the California Judges Association in March, the report’s authors opined “the confidence, support and ‘buy-in’ essential to effective branch wide leadership is lacking.”
The 31-page report went on to list examples of how past functioning of the Judicial Council and AOC, related to the authors by survey participants, gave rise to concern. These comments generally involved criticism regarding a lack of transparency, stifling of debate, and poor oversight of AOC initiatives.
Past Judicial Council members “have felt ignored or subjected to ridicule when attempting to express dissenting views” at meetings, the report said, citing instances where individuals were called “wrongheaded,” “clowns,” and “stupid.”
The council has also failed to comply with requirements set forth in the state constitution and rules of court for establishing directives and reporting expenditures, the authors said. Further, the council frequently delegates issues of great importance to the Executive and Planning Committee, which limits the ability of members to participate in decision making, the report charged.
Additional shortcomings noted in the report included the lack of opportunity for discussion among members and to review written materials before meetings.
As for AOC operations, the report claimed judicial input is often minimized or disregarded in entirely, and that the agency exerts control over the selection of persons for committees that are supposed to have oversight of AOC actions.
‘New Phase of Evolution’
In light of these concerns, the report’s authors said they “see voices of dissent across the State” as calling for “a distinctive and new phase of evolution” for court governance “that builds a unified and decentralized system strong enough to guarantee judicial independence and flexible enough to accommodate the wide range of California’s diverse needs.”
They remarked that “scholars of court reform endorse coordinated decentralization as the optimum structure for state trial court administration,” and asserted that the “current judicial expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo reflect the recognition of many judges that California is uniquely situated to avoid both the problems of uncoordinated localism and the problems of stifling centralization.”
In a state housing counties with residents numbering as few as 1,000, and as many as 9.8 million, the report said, “a one-size-fits-all, centralized approach [to court governance] can never work.” The authors contended that the state, having “achieved a solid foundation of unification” was ready to begin “a system of coordinated decentralization.”
Should the branch “embark on a more pluralist approach” to governance, as proposed in the report, the authors said “proposed solutions should be widely vetted,” although they did not include any suggestions in the body of the report, electing to focus on “next steps” the branch could take “in the short run to start a new path forward.”
They said the AOC should be reorganized under the leadership of a Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer.
The CEO, they advised, should be a judge or retired bench officer who “is recognized as a leader and consensus-builder,” charged with ensuring the AOC “serves the policy direction set by the Chief Justice and the Council.”
An appropriate COO, they suggested, should be a “leader who has the skills to oversee business operations within a judicial branch setting,” which will require a nationwide candidate search.
For the Judicial Council, the report said, some changes to the constituency of its membership were also in order. Members should be “judges or justices who have demonstrated that they are recognized leaders of their peers, not persons who have distinguished themselves only by having previously been appointed to statewide committees,” and “representative of the judiciary.”
The council should also have its own staff, separate of the AOC, to assist it in its responsibilities and oversight of its administrative arm, the report said.
A spokesperson for the AOC said he had not seen the report and therefore had no comment. A spokesperson for the Judicial Council could not be reached for comment.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a director of the Alliance of California Judges, said her group felt the report was “emblematic of how judges up and down this state feel about the state of our governance system and the judicial branch.”
She expressed approval of the report’s recommendation for decentralization, insisting “we need to have fundamental rights restored to local trial courts and local judges.”
The jurist also agreed with the need for transparency, and in furtherance of achieving this goal, said her group last week had called on the chief justice to make the verbatim reports from each of the trial courts available to the public.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company