Tuesday we reported about the unprecedented stand taken by the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee (TCBAC) against a power grab devised by high-ranking AOC officials. At issue was a hastily drafted, under-the-radar proposal which would have given the Accountability and Efficiency Committee (A&E), chaired by Judicial Council insider Justice Richard Huffman, the last word on deciding the appropriate uses of expenditures from the trial courts’ main funding sources. AOC Director Martin Hoshino originally opposed the plan; his thinking, however, “evolved.” Director Hoshino faced a barrage of hostile comments Monday from TCBAC members opposing the shift of its oversight responsibilities to a smaller, less responsive committee which the State Auditor recently deemed singularly ineffective. In the words of Judge Dodie Harman of San Luis Obispo, “This branch has a history of problems with credibility and transparency. . . . . This [proposal] goes backwards with regard to that.” We reprint below Maria Dinzeo’s article in yesterday’s Courthouse News describing TCBAC’s near-unanimous and very vocal opposition to the proposal.
Now we will see whether the Council will take seriously the advice received from its largest and most representative advisory committee. We hope that Mr. Hoshino, for his part, can rein in his subordinates, who put him in the position of defending the indefensible. We trust that his thinking on the subject will evolve back toward his initial—and correct—position, and that he now recognizes the wisdom of leaving the authority to review trial court funding with the subject matter experts in TCBAC. Simply shuffling committee duties in an effort to impress the State Auditor will backfire, especially when the shift is from a serious committee with a track record of openness to a secretive one that has as its primary accomplishment the rubber-stamping of raises for top officials at the AOC.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges
Courthouse News Service
Judicial Council's Plan to Shift Oversight of Trial Court Spending Stirs Dissent
By MARIA DINZEO
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California trial judges on a statewide budget committee fiercely oppose a move to strip their oversight power for trial court spending and give that power instead to a another committee that regularly meets in secret.
This week, judges and court clerks on the Judicial Council's Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee took a strong stance against a proposed rule change that would give a different council committee the authority to go back and review how the council and its staff spent judiciary funds on behalf of the courts.
"I think this is a complete diminution of the authority of this committee," said budget committee member Judge Dodie Harman of San Luis Obispo. "This branch has a history of problems with credibility and transparency. I think we've worked on that, but this goes backwards. It reduces transparency."
Under the amended Rule 10.63, the council's Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency would audit the Judicial Council and its bureaucratic staff's past spending on anything related to the courts, from the judiciary's overall budget to sources like the Trial Court Trust Fund and Improvement and Modernization Fund, which finances court technology projects.
At a meeting on Tuesday, budget committee members said the rule change made no sense. They reasoned that if any committee should be looking at how the council spends money for the courts, it should be them.
"We have to have the ability to review the spending of staff. That's the very reason we're here," Harman said.
The budget committee meets frequently and always openly - in sharp contrast to the accountability committee, which meets only occasionally and usually in private.
"We already as a body meet pretty frequently; in fact we seem to meet a lot," Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee of San Francisco said. "In enlarging this charge to Accountability and Efficiency, it's simply really duplicating the efforts this committee is making and it also denigrates our authority. And there's a tension that will be created between this committee and A&E that will tend to muddy the waters. We need to have a clear line of decision-making."
The rule change comes in the wake of a scathing report by the California State Auditor, who in January published findings that the Judicial Council's staff, formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts, spent $386 million over four years on statewide services that nearly half of California's 58 trial courts don't use - including $186 million on contractors and consultants.
While the proposal is a direct response to the audit, judges questioned whether it was what the auditor actually intended when she wrote, "The Judicial Council should create a separate advisory body, or amend a current committee's responsibilities and composition, to review the AOC's state operations and local assistance expenditures in detail to ensure that they are justified and prudent."
Judges on the budget committee said the move to give another, more secretive committee authority over spending review jeopardizes the credibility they had built over the years. The accountability and efficiency committee is headed by Justice Richard Huffman, a 14-year council member appointed by former Chief Justice Ronald George, and often meets in private.
"I have had conversations in the wake of the audit with legislators assuring them of the integrity of the decision-making process in the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee. I felt there was good deal of acceptance in that. We are risking that credibility," Judge Carolyn Kuhl of Los Angeles said.
In an interview, budget committee chair Judge Laurie Earl said she had frequent discussions over the idea of her committee reviewing bureaucracy spending with both Judicial Council Staff Director Martin Hoshino and Justice Miller, who sits on the council and heads its Executive and Planning Committee where the rule change originated.
In the beginning, Earl, Hoshino and Miller had decided that the budget committee should do the review. "That's where we thought we were heading," Earl said, adding, "I had already announced to the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee that we would be doing this work."
She continued: "There was a change in that decision."
While Hoshino had initially supported Earl's idea, he changed his mind. Or, as he told Earl and later the budget committee, his thinking "had evolved over the course of time."
At the budget committee meeting, Earl said Hoshino knew her position. "He knows through many discussions that I am not in favor of this, that I do not support this.
I believe our committee has the expertise and is best equipped and poised to do this review. I think it deprives the trial courts of important oversight and it has significant opportunity, if we were to do it, to add to our credibility and transparency especially in the eyes of the trial courts."
Hoshino explained his change in thinking to the budget committee, noting that it currently has authority over trial court spending but not spending on behalf of the appellate courts, the Supreme Court or the habeas corpus resource center.
"This is not any reflection of the capacity and ability of this committee to do the work," Hoshino said. "But we're confronted with the aspect that you're talking about the entire branch operation and so I became persuaded that you can't begin and end the analysis of the entire thing in one committee. The A&E committee seemed to be the confluence or the convergence of all of those interests, so it seemed the logical place to be able to do it."
The Judicial Council and its staff are also under a lot of pressure to show the State Auditor and the Legislature that they are taking the audit seriously, especially after a lukewarm reception to its 30-day progress report.
"Maybe they questioned the seriousness and the diligence and the speed at which the Judicial Council was actually able to respond to their audit," Hoshino said. "We want to be able to have something to say candidly about the progress of our response to the audit on the sixth-month report, due July 7."
Later in an interview Earl said she understood the concern that the trial court budget committee has no oversight over the other courts, but added, "I really thought they could separate this."
Hoshino did not respond to a request for comment. Earl said of Hoshino, "I think Martin Hoshino is a thoughtful man and I think that he listened to what folks had to say and perhaps he got a new appreciation the position that the committee members find themselves in."
The budget committee ultimately voted to formally oppose the rule change in a written comment, which the full Judicial Council will consider at its June meeting.
"The important thing for the budget committee is to have the opportunity to express our opposition to it," Earl said. "It's up to the Judicial Council to decide what to do with it, but I think our voice will be heard."