Last week the Alliance of California Judges celebrated its fourth anniversary.
The Alliance was formed by 28 judges from around the state on September 11, 2009, after a handpicked Judicial Council had unanimously voted for the first time in history to close the state’s trial courts one day each month. That vote masked the real reason behind closing courtrooms. While the state budget was imploding due to the recession, those same Council members were diverting millions of dollars from our local courts to fund the most expensive computer debacle in California history, CCMS, a project designed to put the trial courts more and more under the control of the Administrative Office of the Courts and a few select judges. This move was accompanied by a secretly drafted trailer bill at the close of that year’s budget designed to completely undo the priority of local court administration. The Alliance brought these efforts into the arena of public scrutiny.
The Alliance is now a group of 500 judges of this state. The Alliance continues to grow because we are dedicated to being a voice for the independent judges of this state in ensuring responsible local management of our courts by elected judges. We are committed to making open courts, meaningful access and the fair adjudication of disputes the first priorities of the Judicial Branch. In leading the way for reform, we have demonstrated the need for a group of judges who think independently and who recognize that the idea of “speaking with one voice” is too often a mantra for stifling dissent and covering up incompetence.
The Alliance was a key player in achieving a vote of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee that resulted in an audit of the CCMS project. This devastating audit eventually brought the ill-conceived and poorly executed project to an end, although that did not happen until the Judicial Council had wasted more than half a billion dollars of public money over the continuing objections of the Alliance.
The CCMS fiasco was only possible because the Judicial Council spent funds appropriated for trial court operations on statewide projects without the consent of the affected courts, even though the authorizing statute required otherwise. This led to the Alliance sponsoring AB 1208 to limit Judicial Council discretion over trial court funds. This initiative, bitterly opposed by the Chief Justice and her unelected Judicial Council, successfully resulted in new legislation within last year’s Budget Act that required that money approved for trial court operations be delivered to the trial courts unless otherwise specifically approved by the Legislature. This budget bill also officially ended CCMS. Further, the bill required for the first time that the Judicial Council separately reveal the budget items where trial court trust funds were used for statewide purposes, as opposed to delivery to the local courts.
The Alliance brought to light many abuses and inefficiencies of the Judicial Facilities Construction Program which were later detailed in part by the Pegasus report. Our complaints about the bloat and excess of the AOC led to the formation of the Chief Justice’s Strategic Evaluation Committee, whose report vindicated the Alliance criticisms and has prompted some initial efforts at reform.
Your Board of Directors thanks you for your support. The task is not done. Although the SEC Report was a beginning, the AOC continues to be an overfunded and bloated organization that has grown far beyond its intended purpose. The AOC continues to consume funds and resources that need to be redirected to local trial court operations.
The state has terminated over 2500 local court employees and closed 80 courthouses. In the next year we will continue to advocate for a complete reevaluation of the function of the AOC and Judicial Council with respect to trial court funding. We will urge a complete audit of the funds in AOC control. The statutory mandates of the AOC have never been thoroughly reviewed.
Our message is simple. Every program must be reevaluated to ask the question, “Is this function more important than keeping our local courts open?” If the answer is “No,” then that function needs to be decommissioned or reduced, and the available funds promptly redirected to local court funding.
The following audit questions demand an answer: (1) how is money specifically allocated by program or purpose, (2) is each program or purpose economically administered in line with comparable agency and business best practices, and (3) should this program have priority equal to or greater than trial court funding? The Chief Justice’s handpicked Judicial Council has proven itself wholly incapable of asking these important questions.
As we mature and grow as an organization we will endeavor to keep you and our fellow judges informed and involved. The elected judges of this state will be held responsible for the adequate functions of our branch and we must accept that responsibility. The days of unelected bureaucrats and appointed Judicial Council members placing their favored programs and misplaced priorities ahead of open courtrooms and meaningful access to justice must end. We will continue to ask your support in achieving that goal through a detailed audit of the AOC and democratization of the Judicial Council.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges