Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Troubles continue for courts

There’s nothing more fundamental to a well-functioning society than an efficient, fair court system to resolve civil disputes and criminal cases.

California has the nation’s largest court system, and perhaps its most troubled with severe financial and managerial tangles, and a virtual war between a San Francisco-based administrative superstructure and hundreds of rebellious local judges.

What was once a highly decentralized system – and by state law supposed to be that way – was more or less compressed into a centrally managed system under former Chief Justice Ron George, through the state Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

When Tani Cantil-Sakauye succeeded George five years ago, she inherited not only a big financial crisis, born of the Great Recession, but a very expensive “case management” system that had cost hundreds of millions of dollars but didn’t work, a courthouse construction program in disarray, and the trial judge rebellion.

Today, the budget crisis continues, the case management system was finally abandoned, the construction program is still underway, albeit with an uncertain future, and the Alliance of California Judges, the rebel group, is as noisome as ever.

Scarcely a month passes without some new dust-up. The rebel judges portray the Administrative Office of the Courts as an arrogant, dysfunctional agency squandering funds better spent on local court operations, and the Judicial Council as a pack of sycophants.

In a series of highly critical reports, State Auditor Elaine Howle has largely sided with the Alliance of California Judges about the shortcomings of the court leadership and administrative structure, saying that it’s not making the best use of the courts’ limited operational funds.

One of Howle’s recommendations, for example, was that the court system consider moving its administrative operations from very expensive San Francisco to Sacramento. But the Judicial Council agreed only to a minor closure of a branch office in Burbank.

This month, the Alliance of California Judges lodged two new complaints – that the Judicial Council, chaired and controlled by Cantil-Sakauye, was purging trial court advocates from a key financial committee and was planning to strip local judges of hiring and firing authority over their staffs and shift it to San Francisco.

The latter encapsulates the core of the judicial system’s internal strife – its unique nature.

Because it’s a separate and presumably equal branch of government, it is semi-exempt from the oversight that the governor and legislators exercise over other state agencies. And local judges are not merely employees of a state agency who are answerable to the head of that agency – Cantil-Sakauye – but are elected by local voters and therefore believe they have independent status.

This is a genuine administrative and financial mess, and the longer it remains unresolved, the more the court system’s vital functions suffer.