During the recent state budget debate California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye weighed in loudly about the dire, negative impacts of proposed funding cuts to California’s court system. While the words “tax increase” did not pass her lips, there was no doubt that the timing of her loud, vocal criticism of the budget was intended to put more pressure on the legislature to “increase revenues” rather than impose more cuts. But in the case of Cantil-Sakauye and the courts, it turns out that her loud complaints may have been more about protecting her bureaucratic fiefdom than anything else…
California’s court system handles 9 million cases a year. You would think the most important stakeholders of the court system would be families, businesses, victims of crime and law enforcement all depending on the fast, fair and effective work of the courts in order to settle disputes, keep businesses moving, see justice served and protect the public.
However, due to the poor fiscal and managerial decisions made by Judicial Branch leaders, domestic violence victims, children in dependency courts and those seeking the court’s protection will be met with “closed for business”signs when they appear at courthouse doors throughout our state as the new budget is implemented.
The Chief Justice and her hand picked Judicial Council have allowed the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) , which controls the $3.2 billion budget for California’s county trial courts to be operated outside of public oversight – with predictable results.
Running amok with the taxpayer’s dollars, court leaders have squandered hundreds of millions dollars on pet projects, perks, benefits for themselves and a colossal computer system priced at over $2 billion that may never see the light of day.
Consider these facts:
- In February of this year the Bureau of State Audits released a scathing report of the Court’s statewide computer system. To cost over $2 billion, the Bureau found a lack of oversight, cost controls, mismanagement and waste. Further, the Bureau found that Court leaders had failed to conduct a decent cost-benefit analysis to even justify the expenditure. Worse yet, Court leaders never obtained funding for the failed system. Thus, the $600 million already spent on the system had come directly from court operational funds further depleting the branch of the finite dollars it needs to maintain operations. Indeed, during the December 2010 Judicial Council meeting, the director of finance for the AOC told the Chief Justicethat by moving the last $152 million from the trial court trust fund to thecomputer system, the Court would be “all in.” The meaning was, despite every leader in the state knowing that draconian budget cuts were on the horizon, Judicial branch leaders intentionally decided to spend their last operational dollars on their failed system.
- While nearly every organization in the state has been forced to lay off and furlough employees, cut hours and reduce staffing levels to a bare minimum, the AOC continues to hire high-priced employees as they have grown by more than 70 percent since 2004 and continue to hire despite a hiring freeze. Branch leaders have given the AOC employees 2 raises over the past 3 years even when courts were being shuttered. Astonishingly, Judicial Branch leaders had the chutzpah while trial courts were going broke to authorize the use of taxpayer dollars to pay the personal pension contribution of the top 30 AOC executives who already receive lifetime health care for the employee and their significant other for life after 10 years of service.
- The AOC has bungled courthouse construction. Making the federal government seem efficient and streamline is hard to do but the AOC managed to build courthouses for $1,700 a square foot while comparable federal courts houses have cost less than $850 a square foot. Witness the latest construction debacle at the AOC. A Sacramento news station has just reported that a former AOC employee and now a whistle blower, has revealed the AOC tapped money specifically appropriated by the legislature for capital projects and used it instead for routine maintenance which has questionable legality. Take a few minutes to watch this new, startling television coverage by CRA in Sacramento highlighting what is basically fraud by the AOC…
Despite these facts that I mention above, Judicial Branch leadership has chosen to endorse this continued waste. In an effort to deal with a $350 million cut to the branch, Court leaders see the bureaucracy asmore important than maintaining open courts. Despite County Courts like San Francisco being forced to layoff nearly 40% of its staff and greatly diminishing their ability to serve the public, Court leaders refuse to make significant cuts to their precious bureaucracy.
In the face of dramatic budget cuts to the judicial branch a simple question must be asked of the Chief Justice and her Judicial Council; Would the citizens of California, the victims of crime, civil litigants, and all those who depend on our courts to resolve divorces and child custody, ever miss several hundred AOC lawyers, and a plethora of AOC bureaucrats making over $170 thousand a year, receiving taxpayer paid pensions and lifetime health care at 10 years of service? I doubt it. Courts are the avenue of last resort to so many. It is time for the Judicial Branch to stop hiding behind their robes and rule that dramatic governance changes are needed to prevent a budgetary apocalypse.
Unchecked spending on buildings, computer systems and high priced employees who have failed to deliver effective service to the taxpayer at a time when the public is feeling the pinch cries out for governance changes at the Judicial Branch. The AOC’s top administrators have grownaccustomed to working in the dark. Unlike every other public agency in California, the AOC is not required to make its records, including its budgets, available to the public. Nor do the Judicial Council and the AOC provide the public with meaningful opportunities to hear and provide input on matters that affect us all.
In closing, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has been extraordinarily unimpressive in her relative new role to date. She should take the opportunity to do an about-face, and be an advocate for both taxpayers and an effective court system rather than defending the status-quo of the bureaucracy created in large part by her predecessor.