February 8, 2011

Conflict looms between the Judicial Council and the Alliance of California Judges over local court autonomy

As we mentioned in this post, a group of California jurists formed the Alliance of California Judges in 2009 to advocate for the autonomy of local courts. This was, in part, a reaction to former Chief Justice Ronald M. George’s successful effort at crafting a centralized judicial branch of government and the concomitant growth in the size and influence of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the staff agency of the Judicial Council of California. It is also no doubt a response to the state’s fiscal difficulties, as local judges seek to assert control over scarce funds for purposes of local court administration.

It now seems that a conflict over local control is brewing between the Alliance on the one hand, and the Judicial Council, chaired by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, on the other. According to a recent article by Cheryl Miller in The Recorder, the Alliance “has been busy [in Sacramento] shopping two bills aimed at shifting more decision-making and budgetary power to local trial courts.” The first piece of proposed legislation, the Trial Courts’ Rights Act, would “create an elected advisory group akin to, and perhaps a rival to, the Judicial Council.” The second bill “would create a trial court budget commission to take authority for spending decisions affecting California’s 58 superior courts.” Miller reports that, last year, former Chief Justice George and his allies were able to block proposed legislation similar to the Trial Courts’ Rights Act “from ever developing in the Legislature.” The article quotes Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe, the Alliance’s director, as predicting greater legislative success this year.

So what does the new Chief Justice think of the Alliance and its recent activities? Laura Ernde recently published an article in the Daily Journal [subscription required] that quotes Cantil-Sakauye as saying “she doesn’t feel that [the members of the Alliance] are giving her a fair chance.” The Chief explained that, rather than taking her up on her offer of appointment to Judicial Council committees, the group has written her several critical letters. The article quotes Cantil-Sakauye as saying, “That’s not how I solve problems, how judges solve problems.” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan responded on behalf of the Alliance, saying the criticisms directed at the Chief are not personal, but disputing her account of her appointment offer. Horan also said “‘It takes all of us to solve these problems, not just the [AOC] and the chief.’”

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