The size and cultural complexity of California spawns many unique political conflicts, and none more so than a years-long, multi-party squabble within the nation’s largest judicial system.
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The new year will doubtless see renewal of the power struggle, which grew out of the 2002 decision by the Legislature and then-Gov. Gray Davis to consolidate what had been county-governed courts into a statewide system managed by the state Judicial Council, chaired by the Supreme Court’s chief justice, and its Administrative Office of the Courts.
Consolidation was strongly advocated by then-Chief Justice Ron George and counties were happy to have the state relieve them of financial responsibility for the courts.
But in time – and particularly when the state budget was awash in red ink during the Great Recession – many local judges came to resent what they saw as arbitrary management decisions by the Judicial Council and a bloated and self-serving bureaucracy that starved trial courts of funds they needed to handle huge increases in civil and criminal caseloads.
Ultimately, it led to creation of the Alliance of California Judges, which broke with the California Judges Association and advocated a more confrontational attitude toward the San Francisco-based court administration.
The Alliance now counts about a third of the state’s judges as members and has waged a non-stop duel with the judicial establishment, even though George retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
Flashpoints in the duel have been a massive courthouse construction program that George also championed and a computerized statewide case management system that cost hundreds of millions of dollars but could not be made operational.
Late last year, the rebel Alliance hailed a report by the state auditor, Elaine Howle, that mildly criticized the Judicial Council’s purchasing processes.
“This is yet another blow to the branch occurring right before state budgeting action,” the Alliance said. “The Judicial Council/AOC is the same entity that brought shame on the judicial branch for wasting over a half billion dollars on a failed IT project.”
The most likely battleground in 2018 is pending legislation that would overhaul the bail system for criminal defendants, reducing the power of judges to set cash bail and relying, instead, on newly created “pre-trial services” agencies in local court systems to determine whether defendants can be released without bail.
The measure, Senate Bill 10, has passed the Senate but was stalled in the Assembly, in part due to strong opposition from judges, as well as from law enforcement groups and private bail bond agents.
The Judicial Council is also opposed because it reduces judges’ role in pre-trial release. And while the Alliance is opposed, it is critical of giving "a vast amount" of oversight responsibility for a revised system to the Judicial Council and the AOC even though they “failed…to build a statewide case management system, wasting over a half a billion dollars (and) lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on opulent new courthouses while the older buildings rot and crumble.”
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have shied away from inserting themselves into the long-running battle, largely because it would smack of interfering with a co-equal branch of government. They’ve left it to Cantil-Sakauye, who has made some management reforms but has not placated the Alliance.
When the court system was consolidated, it created, in essence, a huge new state agency with nearly 20,000 mostly unionized employees and a budget that’s now more than $3.5 billion a year.
The proposed bail reform would enlarge the system even more, adding potentially thousands of new workers in “pre-trial services” agencies.
A big bureaucracy with a big budget is always going to be politicized, as the conflict illustrates.