Lois Henry

Saturday, Nov 14 2009 01:45 PM

LOIS HENRY: Closing courts wrong approach

By Lois Henry

The state Judicial Council decided to close county courts one day a month starting in September to save money.

I have nothing against saving money, particularly since our state "leaders" can't seem to figure out that spending $2 for every $1 you bring in doesn't work out so well after a while.

Related Info

Courts closed

All California trial courts are mandated by the state Judicial Council to close on the third Wednesday of the month as a cost savings measure through the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2010. Following is a list of those dates plus holidays when Kern's courts will be closed.

2009

Nov. 18, mandated closure

Nov. 26 & 27, Thanksgiving

Dec. 16, mandated closure

Dec. 25, Christmas

2010

Jan. 1, New Years Day

Jan. 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday

Jan. 20, mandated closure

Feb 12, Lincoln's birthday

Feb. 15, Washington's birthday

Feb. 17, mandated closure

March 27, mandated closure

March 31, Cesar Chavez birthday

April 21, mandated closure

May 19, mandated closure

May 31, Memorial Day

June 16, mandated closure

July 1 begins new fiscal year

I digress. OK, so the courts are closed the third Wednesday of every month for an estimated savings of about $93 million over the full fiscal year.

Hey, what if we closed the courts entirely? I bet that would save a boatload of cash! Oh wait, that might interfere with us peon citizens and our pesky right of access to justice. Darn it!

All of which is to say that closing the courts even one day a month was the absolute wrong decision precisely because it absolutely does interfere with the public's most basic right to access its own justice system.

It becomes even more wrong when you follow the money and see that the Judicial Council, via their administrative arm, imaginatively called the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), moved a whole bunch of money ($171 million) that could have helped keep courts open into funds for other things -- like a fancy new computer system that's years in the making and already way over budget, according to a Sacramento Bee expose.

They're also still paying for new courthouse construction. And oh yeah, and they had $86,000 in change laying around so they decided to throw a three-day judicial wingding in San Francisco in June, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Meanwhile, you better check the court schedule and block out half a day if you want fight that speeding ticket in traffic court. And good luck with any civil case you might have. Kern courts, like most others, have had to prioritize, and that means criminal cases and domestic violence orders come first.

"Those are being attended to," Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe assured me.

Lampe and all other Kern County judges have also taken a voluntary pay cut, which most are donating to a local fund for local court functions rather than giving it back to the state because, yes, they're that ticked off about what's happening.

It's not just that local courts are losing 10 days this fiscal year (which works out to two full work weeks). Judges are fed up with how the Judicial Council and AOC have taken more and more control over local courts and made decisions with little to no input from those affected.

Recent news about the AOC hasn't eased those concerns.

The AOC was created by the Legislature about 10 years ago to handle costs -- but not management -- of California's 58 individual trial court systems. Since then, it's increased dramatically in size and scope. Shocking, I know.

The Mercury News reported that from 2004 through last year, the AOC's budget nearly doubled to more than $220 million and has gone from 490 to 901 employees, a third of whom make at least $100,000 per year.

I'm no mathematician, but I bet you could save some serious dough trimming back the AOC ranks.

AOC supporters have countered that it had to grow because the state increased its oversight of local courts.

Not quite, according to Lampe, who helped create a new judges' group, the Alliance of California Judges, dedicated to shining a brighter light on the Judicial Council and AOC.

The Alliance sent a letter to the Judicial Council in October, saying the AOC has sacrificed public court access in order to keep itself off the chopping block and that it has overstepped its bounds by trying to wrest control of local court management, which legally belongs to county judges.

As an aside, an AOC staffer did slip an amendment into the budget bill that would have totally done away with local control of courts. (It didn't pass -- the AOC later said the amendment was a "mistake.") As a further aside, AOC is also talking about trying to take control of courthouse security in order to save money. That authority legally resides with each county sheriff, but the AOC will bring the issue to the Judicial Council at its January meeting. Sheriff Donny Youngblood and the Californian Sheriff's Association are not pleased.

Lampe's Alliance group is asking for a bill of rights for court employees and creation of an advisory group made up of trial court judges to oversee financial decisions. So far, the Judicial Council hasn't responded; Lampe said their next step may be to go to the Legislature, which already called the AOC on the carpet during an Assembly oversight hearing Oct. 28.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, who heads the Judicial Council, regretted having to close the courts, but assured me it wasn't an AOC scheme cooked up behind closed doors. And, he said, if anyone has a better alternative, he's more than willing to listen.

"This was a Judicial Council decision that we made -- reluctantly -- after substantial input from local courts," George told me.

When I asked if any Kern judges were involved, he couldn't get that specific, saying that the Judicial Council has two committees, one made up of presiding judges and the other of court administrators, and he assumed those committees were consulted.

I asked whether the council had considered holding off funding the computer system and George said even if they hadn't fully funded the computer project (which they did) they might still have needed to close courts considering they were facing a $400 million shortfall. Either way, he said, stopping midstream on the computer system would have been a terrible waste of tax dollars.

"You'd be throwing away the $450 million invested so far," he said. "If you don't keep it going you have to start from scratch."

He praised the system, saying those who've tested it can't say enough good about it and that even Homeland Security is interested.

As criticism mounted over the court closures earlier this fall, George was quoted as saying, "A lot of this is an effort to dismantle the statewide administration of justice because with the statewide administration of justice comes accountability."

The comment chapped a lot of hides, particularly because the Judicial Council and AOC have been downright secretive about how, exactly, they spend our tax dollars.

I asked George if he stood by that statement and he said yes.

He realizes the Judicial Council and AOC can be more open with information and they're willing to do so, he said, and he's not impugning the debate over the closures. But they did consider other measures, such as massive layoffs or allowing locals to close dependency courts or domestic violence courts or cutting other services county by county.

"The irony is, the best way of preserving access for all was actually limiting the days court were open on a consistent statewide basis," he said.

I respectfully disagree.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at people.bakersfield.com/home/Blog/noholdsbarred, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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