Assignment 7

Rebellion in the California court system

Thursday, February 25, 2010

They call themselves "the alliance." Others call them rebels. They are a group of California judges who say the state's judicial branch is no longer serving the people and they are demanding reform.

Last month, Judge David Lampe from Kern County made a public appeal to the California Judicial Council to stop closing courthouses one day a month. It is a decision the council says it made because of the state's budget crisis.

Lampe says his plea fell on deaf ears.

"I believe that a lot of judges felt they did not have a sufficient voice in the decision that closed our courts," he said.

That decision was made by the 27 judges who sit on the judicial council. They make statewide policy and administer the multi-billion dollar budget for California's courts. Members of the judicial council are appointed by the chief justice of the state supreme court, who also presides over its meetings. The council's staff is called the AOC, short for Administrative Office of the Courts.

The court closures and employee furloughs have triggered an open revolt against the council by some of California's 1,700 judges.

"A very insular, elite group of folks has run this branch for now 15 years or so," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles Horan.

Some judges began complaining that the judicial council and the AOC were becoming a remote bureaucracy; all too powerful and all too secretive with the court's budget. Last September, these judges formed what they called the alliance -- a sort of pro-democracy movement.

Lee: Is this something like Star Wars: Alliance versus evil empire?

Horan: You know, I must be truthful, there is a certain element of that and you're not the first person to notice it.

Judges Horan and Lampe helped organize the alliance which now has more than 200 members from across the state. They are shopping a bill in Sacramento that would create an advisory group of judges from each of the 58 superior court districts to provide oversight on the judicial council's budget decisions.

"The governance there is very much out of touch with the branch, out of touch with what's happening in the local courts and out of touch with the view of the public," Lampe said.

Alliance members point to the expensive upgrade project for the court's computer system during these lean times.

"They went from a month ago apparently $1.4 billion estimate to now $1.7. The numbers fly around and are mind-boggling," Horan said. "It's a million dollars per judge. One million dollars per judge by the time they're done."

The alliance complains that judicial council votes are almost always unanimous.

"There are 21 voting members currently of the judicial council," Lampe said. "Our research discloses that except for four instances over the last 13 years, all of their decisions have been 21 to nothing,"

The alliance says the council's staff, the AOC, has grown to a huge bureaucracy of nearly 1,000 state employees. The AOC gave pay raises to dozens of staffers during the height of the budget crisis when most judges took a voluntary 5 percent pay cut.

This angers alliance members like Judge Quentin Kopp of San Francisco.

"It is incompatible with the prudent administration of money," Kopp said. "It makes no sense to be adding to compensation for people in the AOC."

The AOC counters by saying despite the pay raises, there have been voluntary furloughs and no cost of living increases.

"So we've been very conservative in terms of our costs and payroll at the AOC," Ronald Overholt with the AOC said.

Judicial council members ABC7 spoke with bristled at the alliance's criticism of them, saying their decisions are influenced by a broad spectrum of judges.

"It's not just those of us sitting in that room, but it's about 500 judges around the state who sit on committees and bring reports to us and work very hard day in and day out," California Appellate Court Justice Brad Hill said.

"Everything is vetted, everything goes out for public comment," California Appellate Court Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said. "We seek public comment on every proposal, every rule, every idea."

The public, that is who the rebel judges say they are fighting for. After all, Lampe says, it is the people's court, not theirs.

"We do know the value of speaking with one voice as a branch," Lampe said. "I think to speak with one voice, that voice must first be found. Work with us to give the people a voice. Thank you very much."

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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