On Monday, the Chief Justice gave her fourth State of the Judiciary address. Her remarks were brief, her tone subdued. In marked contrast with last year’s speech, she did not demand large sums from the Legislature, nor did she decry at length the crisis in our courts. Instead, she spoke about the Magna Carta and the Civil Rights Act; she extolled the virtues of diversity on the bench; she stressed the value of civics education.
One thing she did not speak about was the State Auditor’s sweeping critique of the AOC/Judicial Council staff, released in January. The Chief Justice preferred instead to refer to a process of “self-assessment” within the AOC. We note, however, that the audit was hardly an act of “self-assessment”; it was a top-to-bottom review conducted by outside experts at the direction of the Legislature over the Judicial Council’s and the AOC’s objections.
All in all, there was little in the Chief’s short address with which we, or anyone, could take issue. We do, however, take strong exception to one part of her speech. In one curious interlude, the Chief Justice highlighted what she called the similarity in governance between the Legislature and the Judicial Council. She noted that the Council, like the Legislature, has committees—in the Council’s case, more than 30 of them. “We, like you,” she claimed, “are a very fluid body, with much input in this collaborative process.”
We couldn’t disagree more.
For starters, the Legislature is democratically elected; the Judicial Council is not. The Chief Justice alone picks the judges and justices who make up the majority of the Council. This system rewards loyalty and stifles diverse opinions. The result: an echo chamber, in which the same people parrot the same arguments on behalf of the same failed policies.
Moreover, the Legislature, unlike the Judicial Council and its attendant bodies, experiences frequent turnover. Legislators have term limits. By contrast, the same judges get appointed over and over to Judicial Council committee after committee; some are serving on five or six advisory bodies at once. Sure, the Judicial Council is a “fluid body”—if the fluid in question is molasses on a cold day.
Most important, the Legislature tolerates dissent; in fact, it thrives on it. By contrast, the judicial branch leadership, beginning with former Chief Justice George, has insisted that the judiciary speak with one voice. We know this first-hand. We’ve reached out to the Council. We’ve tried to participate. Time after time, we’ve been locked out. The previous Chief Justice refused to meet with the Alliance and referred to us as “ants on a trail.” An Alliance director met with the current Chief Justice early in her tenure and asked that an informal group be formed, including Alliance members, to promote reform within the branch; we never got a response. One of our directors, Judge Tia Fisher, was given a spot on the Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency for the Judicial Branch; then she voted against raises for top AOC members, and was not asked to return. None of our directors was asked to serve on the “Futures Commission” or any of its subcommittees.
Speaking with one voice is not who we are or what we do. There are 1,700 superior court judges in this state, each accountable to the voters of 58 different counties. We shouldn’t have to speak with one voice any more than the members of the Legislature should be expected to vote unanimously on every issue. Besides, we’re judges. We are supposed to stand up against the crowd for what we feel is right. We don’t engage in groupthink.
If we had all spoken with one voice, the AOC would have continued to funnel money away from the trial courts into CCMS, and we would have lost another $1.4 billion or more, on top of the $500 million that had already been wasted.
If we had all spoken with one voice, the latest audit—resisted by the AOC—would never have happened. We never would have learned about the 66-car fleet, the millions in excessive salaries and perks, the services provided by the AOC that we don’t want and don’t need but still have to pay for.
If we had all just fallen into line, the Chief Justice would never have felt the need to appoint the Strategic Evaluation Committee in the first place, and the AOC would have continued to grow in size and arrogance.
The Chief Justice noted that members of the AOC's Bench-Bar Coalition and the Open Courts Coalition were walking the halls of the State Capitol, urging legislators to fund the courts. We’ve been at the State Capitol too, doing much the same thing. But our message is slightly different: We’re asking for more funding—but we want any new money to go directly to the trial courts, bypassing the AOC altogether. And trust us—the members of the Legislature to whom we’ve spoken were already well aware of the audit and its findings.
The Chief Justice noted that the Magna Carta came about when a group of English nobles rose up against a heavy-handed monarch. We’re doing much the same thing. We’re taking a stand against a body that claims to govern us, even though it has no such authority; that claims to speak for us, even though it freezes us out; that has made decisions on our behalf that have affected us profoundly, and for the worse, without seeking our input.
Our plan is to continue to speak truth to power and to fight for a properly funded, well-governed judiciary. We thank you for your support.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges