May 5, 2011

Assembly Judiciary Committee approves amended version of Trial Court Rights Act

As we have noted here and elsewhere, the controversial Trial Court Rights Act, AB 1208, is a challenge to the concentration of administrative authority over California’s courts in the Judicial Council of California, which is chaired by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, and its administrative arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). As noted by Cheryl Miller in a May 3 article in The Recorder [subscription required], in essence the bill would require “the Judicial Council [to] distribute all the money the Legislature allocates for the trial courts to the trial courts” and would further impose restrictions on the Judicial Council’s ability to expend such funds on statewide court projects like the AOC’s troubled and over-budget Court Case Management System (CCMS) (a project we discussed here). The bill has been championed by the Alliance of California Judges, a group of jurists seeking to increase the autonomy of local courts.

As reported here by the Courthouse News Service and also by The Recorder [subscription required], the Assembly Judiciary Committee on May 3 approved AB 1208 in amended form. The bill was amended “to remove a provision requiring the Judicial Council to allocate money to trial courts according to court size, and obtain legislative approval for all money set aside for statewide court projects.” The bill was also amended to require the Judicial Council to obtain approval from just two-thirds (instead of three-quarters) of the trial courts before spending on statewide projects administered by the AOC. The bill will now head to the Appropriations Committee for the drafting of its final language.

The Chief Justice, as Chair of the Judicial Council and head of California’s judiciary, recently articulated a strategy to forestall legislative action on AB 1208. The strategy includes the appointment of a Strategic Evaluation Committee (SEC) of the Judicial Council to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the operations of the AOC. Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) acknowledged the Chief Justice’s efforts and the challenges before her, saying, “I think it is consequential that the [C]hief [J]ustice inherited issues with which she deserves the opportunity to grapple. She has not had the opportunity. She needs to seize that opportunity.”

Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe, director of the Alliance, was less conciliatory. He said the Chief’s new SEC will not address the perceived problems the Alliance hopes to remedy through AB 1208. According to the Courthouse News Service, Lampe said: “‘Being on a committee of the Judicial Council is not the answer. The committees are part of the problem. We have committees overseeing other committees. This is about creating a balance between the trial courts on one hand and the Judicial Council on the other hand.’”

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