Clash of the courts: Dissident judges challenge California chief justice’s power
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles E. Horan rejoiced over last month’s state audit that savaged the California court system’s mismanagement of a costly new computer system.
“This is the sort of thing we have been complaining about,” exulted the Pomona judge. “Do you think perhaps now people ought to pay attention to what we’re saying?”
In 2009, Horan helped found a group of judges to challenge the power and authority of the state’s judicial leadership. After two years of being marginalized as a fringe clique of black-robed dissidents, the group of largely anonymous judges is now making friends in Sacramento and gathering strength.
The insurrection has sparked new legislation, generated hostility toward the judicial leadership, inundated judges’ mailboxes with caustic e-mails and threatened to throw the state’s new chief justice off-step just as she assumes the reins of the California judiciary.
At issue is whether the court system should continue to be run centrally by the chief justice and his or her appointees, or whether elected judges and the trial courts should call more of the shots, including on how money is spent.
The Alliance of California Judges pits itself against the Administrative Office of the Courts, the bureaucracy in San Francisco that runs the judicial branch under the supervision of the Judicial Council, the governing and policy-setting body headed and run by the chief justice.
“It has deliberately and recklessly advocated for its own parochial interests … while trial court operations have suffered from furloughs, courthouse closures and layoffs,” alliance directors wrote to “fellow judges” in a January letter.
The alliance claims about 350 of the state’s 1,700 judges are members, but says many want their names kept secret because they fear reprisals — a perception that the state’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, says mystifies her.
Judges who click on a link on the group’s website become members, receiving a barrage of e-mails detailing what the alliance believes is the arrogance and incompetence of judicial-branch leaders.
Many nonmembers said they also receive the e-mails, passed on by others. Some said they agree with the alliance’s aims. Others are indifferent or consider the group dangerous.
“Judges by and large are folks who have a percentage of prima donna in them, running from a little to a great deal,” said one Northern California judge who, like many judges, would speak about the split within the court system only on condition of anonymity. “There is no question that the concept of centralizing authority bothers a lot of judges in a big way.”
Retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George, reviled by some alliance members, largely ignored the group. Before stepping down in January, he said his decision had nothing to do with the alliance.
“That would be like canceling a trip to Yosemite because there are ants on the trail,” George said.
His successor, a moderate Republican chosen largely for her diplomatic and administrative skills, met with alliance leaders to try to bridge differences.
But at her first news conference, Cantil-Sakauye complained that they were “not giving me a chance.”
Just as she was trying to stave off $200 million in cuts to the court system, the audit came out. Alliance leaders had lobbied for it. The report said the judiciary’s administrators had mismanaged the purchase and installation of a computer system that is supposed to link courts in all 58 counties. The project’s estimated costs have ballooned from $260 million in 2004 to $1.9 billion today, the auditor said.
Two legislators cited the audit in a public letter last month demanding that Cantil-Sakauye fire William Vickrey, the top manager of the court system.
The new chief justice took umbrage.
“I consider this letter a serious attempt to interfere with judicial branch governance,” she said in a public statement. She called Vickrey “an invaluable resource.”
The audit and the alliance’s tenacious lobbying have reduced her leverage in Sacramento. Some legislators insisted they, not court leaders, should decide how the court system would absorb the coming cuts, a stance that “deeply troubled and concerned” Cantil-Sakauye as a violation of separation of powers.
The roots of the insurgency began in 1998 when George succeeded in winning approval of an overhaul of the state’s judicial branch. The transformation punctured the tradition-bound culture of the judiciary.
With its new statewide responsibilities, the court system’s administrative office exploded in size, more than doubling its staff from 1998 to 2010 as it took command of the largest court system in the world. Some elected judges bristled at being under the thumb of bureaucrats and worried that actions they could not control would affect their ability to win reelection.
“We are not uneducated, unintelligent crazy people,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew P. Banks, an alliance director. “We are careful, thoughtful constitutional judicial officers.”
The insurrection gained traction amid the state’s budget crisis when the courts closed one day a month. Many judges also felt betrayed when they volunteered to give up a day’s pay each month only to learn that the administrative office had raised some staff members’ pay.
When a systemwide task force recommended new, media-friendly policies for cameras in the courtroom, the rebel judges argued that they should determine whether to permit cameras. The task force included members of the news media, including a Times editor.
“Your judicial discretion is on the line, friends,” Horan told other judges. “Don’t let them take it.”
Members of the alliance fear the chief justice would block promotions to the appellate bench if their identities were known, Horan and other directors of the group say. Judges also worry their rulings would be more vulnerable to decertification if the state high court knew of their involvement.
Court leaders scoff at the perception of danger. “I don’t have a reputation for retaliation and vindictiveness,” Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview.
At the same time, she questioned how alliance leaders “justify using court computers, court time and court resources for their purposes.”
The group’s directors said they pay for their own travel. Some said they had permission from their presiding judges to do alliance work on government time.
“I truly feel badly for the new chief,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert A. Dukes. “But she is taking it personally.”
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