Monday, July 23, 2012
Judiciary’s Credibility at Stake in AOC Reform—Czuleger
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A former Los Angeles Superior Court presiding judge and Judicial Council member has joined the growing chorus of judges calling for rapid implementation of the recommendations of the Strategic Evaluation Committee.
Judge J. Stephen Czuleger provided the MetNews Friday with a copy of comments he has submitted to the council’s Executive and Planning Committee.
The committee, on which Czuleger once served and which is now chaired by Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Douglas Miller, has been charged by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye with the task of reviewing the recommendations of the SEC, whose severe criticisms of the Administrative Office of the Courts were made public more than a month ago.
Yesterday was the deadline set by the committee for submitting comments on the report. At last count, nearly 200 individuals and organizations had submitted comments, and Courthouse News Service reported last week that they were running about 90 percent in favor of the committee’s recommendations and opposed to any delay.
A minority of commenters argued for a go-slow approach tied to the appointment of a new administrative director, as the council searches for a permanent replacement for the recently retired William Vickrey.
Czuleger said in his comments that “the unbridled, poorly scripted and unrestrained actions and growth of the AOC have acted as a drain on the finances and, more importantly, credibility of the entire Judicial Branch of this state,” and that the SEC report reflecs what he and others have been saying “for far too long.”
He urged that the report be implemented in full “with all deliberate speed.” He called the AOC as presently structured “an existential threat to this state’s judiciary.”
In 24 years on the bench, he elaborated, he has seen the administrative arm of the judicial branch “grow, change for the worse, and, in the end diminish not enhance the finest courts in the country in far too many ways.”
He criticized the council for its past failure to oversee the AOC, saying there is now an opportunity to do that, rather than “condemn[ ] the Branch to many more years of turmoil, derision and ineffectiveness.”
He cited an incident from his time on the Executive and Planning Committee when it was asked to redesignate fund balances for projects. He said he was surprised to be told that the money would not actually be spent according to those designations, but would instead be made to “appear encumbered when it truly was not.”
When he “half jokingly” asked “Well isn’t this what Enron did and was indicted over?”, the reply was :No, we’re government and don’t have to act like private industry.”
“My point was obviously lost on the group and the AOC staffer then turned up her nose at my comment and committee quickly proceeded to move the money off the books and into designated funds making the funds appear unavailable. It was quite apparent to me the intent was to hide the funds from the Legislature and others. This type of obfuscation was a regular pattern during my term on the Council. I am afraid it may be continuing to this day.”
He urged that the council “not ignore the [SEC] report, water it down, delay it, criticize it or minimize it in any way.”
Also providing comments Friday was Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Randolph Hammock, who joined Czuleger, other judges of the court, and the court itself in support of the report.
“Will Rogers once said: ‘When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.’ While I recognize and applaud the efforts of the AOC and the Judicial Council in their sincere attempts to improve our state’s judicial system, it is painfully clear by the SEC Report that these attempts, in considerable part, have been misguided and/or ineffective. Clearly, reform is needed. It simply stretches one’s credulity to suggest otherwise.”
The council, he said, should “adopt each and every recommendation made in the SEC Report” instead “attempting to dig [its] way out of this hole.”
In related news, the Alliance for California Judges, which urged its members late last week to get their comments in by the deadline lest their silence be taken as acquiescence, emailed a link to a Wednesday news report by Sacramento television station KCRA.
The report dealt with the disclosure by the SEC that an AOC staff attorney, while designated as working in San Francisco, actually telecommutes from Switzerland, while others have worked from Minnesota and Maryland. Those arrangements, the SEC said, were approved by Vickrey even though they violated AOC policy against taking such measures in order to prevent positions from becoming vacant.
The arrangements, the committee said, “demonstrate not only a deficient service orientation to the courts but also a seeming arrogance or lack of sensitivity in the eyes of many budget-strapped courts that cannot afford the luxury of such arrangements.”
KCRA said the Swiss-based lawyer, who is being paid nearly $10,000 monthly, is due back in California in April of next year.
The segment included an interview in which Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, an alliance director, said it was “outrageous that this insular, unaccountable bureaucracy has been empowered to such an extent that we’re allowing lawyers to telecommute from Switzerland.”
The reporter noted that the AOC declined to provide a spokesperson to speak on camera, but referred to the chief justice’s remarks upon releasing the SEC report, in which she said he hoped the recommendations would “help yield change for the better.”
Comments of Judge J. Stephen Czuleger on the SEC Report
When everyone tells you that you are dead, you need to lie down.
The AOC is not dead but it may very well cause the demise of the Judiciary in California. For many years now the unbridled, poorly scripted and unrestrained actions and growth of the AOC have acted as a drain on the finances and, more importantly, credibility of the entire Judicial Branch of this state. The SEC Report confirms without question that which many of us have been saying (and ignored) for far too long. The report and all of its recommendations must be implemented with all deliberate speed. Failure to do so risks consequences far beyond the current fiscal crises. The AOC as it exists today is an existential threat to this state’s judiciary.
I have been a judge for over 24 years. I have been a member of the Judicial Council, served on many of its committees, and served as the Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. I have spent countless hours visiting the Capitol on behalf of the courts and taught CJER classes. During those years and in my many capacities, I have had opportunity to see the AOC grow, change for the worse, and, in the end diminish not enhance the finest courts in the country in far too many ways.
The SEC Report is accurate and documents all that is wrong with the AOC and by implication the Judicial Council. It implicates the Judicial Council because the Judicial Council has failed in its obligation to oversee the AOC. In the end, the responsibility for all that is wrong with the AOC today rests on the Judicial Council. That body failed to act when it should have done so.
But now the Judicial Council has the opportunity to address its earlier failures. Failure to act in a timely manner now is unforgivable because it condemns the Branch to many more years of turmoil, derision and ineffectiveness. In other words, this is a turning point for the entire Branch. If the Judicial Council fails to act responsibly, they condone all that the SEC Report condemns.
While I was on the Council, I served on the Executive and Planning Committee. During that time, much that is wrong with the AOC was done in the name of the Judicial Council. As a single example (and there are many more), I recall how staff from the AOC presented budget material for our committee’s action. The action requested was to redesignate fund balances to certain projects. I asked if that money was going to be spent on those projects but was told no it would not be. I was told it would, however, take the money off the books and make it appear encumbered when it truly was not. I half jokingly stated, “Well isn’t this what Enron did and was indicted over?” Another member of the council, quite seriously replied, “No, we’re government and don’t have to act like private industry.” My point was obviously lost on the group and the AOC staffer then turned up her nose at my comment and committee quickly proceeded to move the money off the books and into designated funds making the funds appear unavailable. It was quite apparent to me the intent was to hide the funds from the Legislature and others. This type of obfuscation was a regular pattern during my term on the Council. I am afraid it may be continuing to this day.
I tell this story to demonstrate a direct example of how the AOC has acted in a less than forthright manner. This is consistent with everything contained in the SEC Report. More importantly, I share this story to point out that it is the Judicial Council that allowed improprieties occur. We now all share the responsibility that the errors of the past created. Acting on this report will not bring back the half of a billion dollars lost to CCMS or bring new money from the Legislature. It will, however, help to repair the Judiciary’s lost credibility.
Do not ignore the report, water it down, delay it, criticize it or minimize it in any way. It may not be perfect, but it is the perfect solution to begin long overdue corrections needed for the Branch to right itself. Stop taking endless comments. Stop special interest groups from picking at it. Stop the bureaucracy from attempting to rescue itself. Do the right thing. Implement it and do it now. Do not let the opportunity pass. The alternative would be a tragedy for the Branch. It is time for the AOC to lie down.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company