Monday, October 20, 2003
Proposed Rule Would Require Trial Courts to Seek Public Input
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
A proposed court rule being circulated for public comment would require the state’s trial courts to seek public input before making decisions on some administrative matters.
Proposed Rule 6.620 of the California Rules of Court would require trial court officials to seek comment from the public before adopting judicial branch budget recommendations or closing courthouses. Public input would also have to be sought before requesting permission to make budget reallocations or executing contracts without competitive bidding if the amounts involved in either case exceed a specified amount.
The proposed rule was developed by the Judicial Council’s Rules and Projects Committee, chaired by Justice Norman L. Epstein of Div. Four of this district’s Court of Appeal. The rule would comply with the mandate of SB 144, sponsored by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, which was signed by Gov. Gray Davis last month.
The measure, which becomes law Jan. 1, will add Sec. 68511.6 to the Government Code, requiring the Judicial Council to “adopt appropriate rules providing for notice to the public and for public input to decisions concerning administrative and financial function of a trial court, including, but not limited to decisions relating to the budget of the trial court prior to submittal to the Judicial Council and subsequent to budget approval.”
The section also requires adoption of rules “requiring trial courts to give notice to the public of other appropriate decisions concerning the administrative and financial functions” of the trial courts. Judicial and adjudicative activities are expressly exempted from the reach of the legislation.
Escutia chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee Counsel Gloria Ochoa said the senator’s representatives worked closely with the Judicial Council committee in drafting the rule, beginning even before the legislation was passed.
While the “legislation itself is pretty broad,” Ochoa said, in drafting the rule “there had to be some limitations on the public access because sometimes the area that’s being addressed is pretty gray.”
Some things, like case assignments and court closings, might appear to be administrative but “may affect the function of the judiciary,” Ochoa explained.
She added that there had been “a lot of give and take” in drafting the proposed rule. It will probably be necessary to “tinker with it” even after it is adopted and has been in effect, based on experience with how it works out in practice, she predicted.
Legislation adopted in 1998 shifted responsibility for trial court funding from counties to the state, and gave the Judicial Council the power to manage court budgets.
The proposed rule would allow the Judicial Branch Budget Advisory Committee to request trial court recommendations for budget priorities. If a trial court chose to make recommendations, it would have to comply with the notice provisions of the rule.
Any recommendations made by the trial courts to the Judicial Council about items to be included in the judicial branch budget would also be subject to notice and public input requirements.
Notice would have to be given by posting the information on the trial court’s website, if it has one, and at all locations where court filings are accepted. Notices to media, bar associations, employee organizations, and specified county officials would also be required, but only if requested.
Courts could provide the required notice by e-mail and could require that anyone requesting notice submit an e-mail address. But a court that elects to distribute notices by e-mail would also have to give notice to anyone who requests it.
Materials gathered or prepared to support the court decision or recommendation involved would have to be made available for public viewing, though this could also be done via a court website or by e-mail.
Courts could require, under the proposed rule, that all public input be provided electronically, either by e-mail or through a court Web site.
Planned court closures would be subject to the notice and input requirements if they meant the court location would be closed on a day it was previously open or if its hours would be reduced by one-third or more. The provisions would also be invoked if a court planned to terminate the services of a Family Law Facilitator or a Family Law Information Center at any location.
The budget reallocation and non-competitive contract provisions of the rule would be triggered only if the amount involved was greater than the larger of $400,000 or 10 percent of the court’s budget. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Superior Court said the court’s annual budget is about $666 million, meaning those provisions would apply only for amounts greater than $66.6 million.
The spokesperson said court officials have not yet had time to review the proposed rule.
The $400,000 or 10 percent rule also applies to provisions of the proposed rule requiring public notice if the court receives a grant, solicits proposals, or executes a contract in excess of the trigger amount.
Courts would also be required to provide public notice within 15 days when:
•They receive their annual budget allocation from the Judicial Council;
•There is a “significant permanent increase” in the hours any court location is open;
•There is a “significant permanent decrease” in the hours a location is open, or in the hours it is open on a particular day; and
•When action is taken on any item on which the court was required by the rule to seek public input.
The proposed rule specifies it would be subject to enforcement by petition for writ of mandate under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1085. The period for public comment on the proposal ends Nov. 4.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company