While California's economy was only beginning to recover from deep recession, the Administrative Office of the Courts was maintaining a fleet of 66 vehicles. Were they needed? Who knows. An audit released last week found no documented justification.
While courtrooms were being closed across the state for lack of funds, the office was paying eight of its nine managers annual salaries of more than $179,000, and 800 employees an average of $82,000 — an amount that the audit found to be $20,000 above the average for the executive branch.
The report by the California State Auditor's Office is by no means the first time the courts' policymaking body, known as the Judicial Council, and its staff, previously known as the administrative office, have come under criticism for wasteful spending. Lawmakers had been so angered by the office's perceived arrogance and the continuing and costly expansion of centralized management that perhaps they cut funding deeper than they needed to.
So the audit, showing that financial management problems continue to beset the judicial branch, is disappointing. The alleged waste, such as $7.2 million a year spent on temporary employees for work that could have been done by full-time state employees, may be a pittance when compared with the amount by which the courts are underfunded, but it's still a lot of money and it undermines the courts' case for full restoration of funds slashed during the recession.
It also makes it more difficult to navigate the complicated background of the court funding story. There is, for example, continuing tension between courts that were traditionally well-funded and the Judicial Council and administrative office, which dipped into trial court funds to redistribute among courtrooms around the state. Court employee unions that counted on reserves for their future contracts, and local trial judges who bristle at the loss of autonomy over their budgets, already distrust the Judicial Council. Antipathy among the various factions obscures the progress the still-young branch has made in the last 14 years, since trial court funding became a state responsibility and not a matter left to the varying agendas and administrative abilities of the state's 58 separate counties.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who cut deeply into the courts in recent years, appears at least somewhat satisfied by recent Judicial Council efforts to economize, as evidenced by his proposed budget, which restores some funding now that it has become available. But the Judicial Council has to keep trim. And seriously — who needs 66 cars?