In Defense Of The AOC: An Insider’s Viewpoint

This comment was posted under the comments section of this post and I wanted to give this person the benefit of the doubt of having his views seen by more readers.  So I’ve taken the liberty of giving his comment a post of its own.  Feel free to discuss what you read in the comments section.

The following comment was posted by ServingTheCourtsForTheBenefitOfAllCalifornians.

I’m an employee of the AOC employed through the ramp-up over the last 10 years and I have to state that many observations here, although somewhat accurate, many miss the mark or are misleading and here’s why.

1) Some AOC employees like myself were previously well established, highly paid engineering, architectural and technical consultants IN OTHER JOBS WORKING FOR OTHER COMPANIES that took pay cuts as high as 50% to go to work for the AOC and provide a public service because we wanted to be on the ground floor of an exciting opportunity; Reshaping the judicial branch of California and being to go home with pride in our minds and in our hearts saying “I did that”.

Hiring these people saved the state money, however a growing AOC is not without its critics as exhibited here.

Many of those 100K wage earners earned twice as much elsewhere before going to work for the AOC and many can make twice as much elsewhere by leaving the AOC.

Now its said that one can more easily justify contracting out at all levels of government over hiring an employee because its the added employees and not the consultants and contractors that come under scrutiny. This site is proof-positive of that.

2) The CFP’s do not cover the costs as the true costs were hidden by years of deferred maintenence. County entities were charging the courts for services rendered – and trying to balance their own budgets with these fees while providing a minimal level of repairs and upkeep and continuing to defer maintenence – for as long as 15 years. Getting that lightbulb replaced by some counties was indeed a challenge. They would replace the bulb but our local courthouse would have to buy the bulb and pay for its replacement and there were 58 different and ever-evolving ways throughout the state to accomplish simple things like changing a light bulb imposed on by the courts and ultimately, the State of California from the counties. The situation became more and more untentable as tax revenues dropped and counties suffered the most.

Today, the Office of Court Construction and Management attempts to manage a maintenence backlog somewhere around 350 million with a budget thats about 1/10th of that amount. Do the math, project the implications.

Some courthouses will fare better than others because they are newer. Other courthouses need to simply be replaced with some being built at the turn of the century. Amador County’s holding cell before they moved was a coat closet with bars instead of a door. Mammoth Lakes and Santa Clara courts are courts that rented space sitting in old storefronts. Susanville is a turn-of-the-century courthouse where prisoners must walk through public areas in a building that cannot be expanded nor can it continue to be utilized because they don’t meet various code requirements. Replacing the turn of the century structure was deemed more cost effective than remodeling it. Markleeville courthouse cannot handle so much as a room fan without blowing all the circuits in the building and so on and so on and so on.

3) Not taking the buildings ‘as is’ would result in years of costly state/county sniping for money or worse – litigation with one government entity suing another – surely not a good way to spend your tax dollars.

Some entity needed to come up with the money as the counties surely weren’t building lots of new courthouses to meet the demand. County tax dollars, state tax dollars – they are still tax dollars and surcharges charged to fund the projects where they were not previously funded at all.

Remember, the voters passed the initiative in 1998. They never spelled out how it would be funded and it took years to get that funding to execute the will of the voters.

4) New courthouses are needed because some 21% of the courthouses are deemed unsafe to the public, having serious security issues or an inability with being able to comply with various codes, access to justice via accomodations or simply because there was no available courtrooms.

In the inland empire area, defendants who waived time were stuck in local jails for a really really long time (I’ve heard citations as long as two years) waiting for justice – because there were no available judges or courtrooms in a community that had experienced explosive growth, yet didn’t add a single court building.

5) Some major buildings inherited by the state had suffered so much deferred maintenence on buildings that were built in the late 50’s and early 60’s -and had a design life of 50 years that its cheaper to tear them down and rebuild than it is to wait for the next ‘big one’ when some may simply collapse. Long Beach Courthouse is a perfect example. Do you think any county is going to come up with the 300 million to replace massive courthouses like Long Beach or to add massive courthouses like San Bernardino or Fresno? When you fail to preserve defendants rights to a speedy trial and speedy arraignments because they do not waive time, then you must release them and dismiss the charges. This was already happening for a large swath of low-level crimes in strained areas and its getting worse as county prosecutors statewide continue to decline prosecution for minor offenses or public defenders can’t take additional cases due to a lack of resources.

Add the inavailability of courts to the mix and you have a recipe for virtual anarchy; something I think a few tax dollars is well worth investing against.

Please keep in mind: The 400 or so employees hired by the AOC in the last 5 or so years are expected to provide the same services as 4,000 county level employees that previously provided a wide variety of services to the courts. Since 1998, the counties have judicial branch employees work in buildings that were quite literally falling apart.

The two service providers that do all of that maintenence are for the most part an insignificant force multiplier due to the tiny pot of money alloted to maintain these structures, the AOC themselves has to make some really hard choices and these choices were not easy.

Access to justice is paramount simply because its a constitutional requirement. Utilizing what little money there is, OCCM is just trying to tread water and not lose any more buildings by deferring years of deferred maintenence even further and prioritizing the needs of some 500+ structures they inherited, eclipsing even DGS in the amount of owned real estate

The State Department of General Services (DGS) rents around 17,000 buildings and offices and only owns and operates 60 of those buildings. The AOC has over 500 owned buildings that transferred with a huge percentage of those transferring last year.

Some AOC people are seasoned veterans from DGS and many others are well seasoned private industry real estate, architectural, technology or engineering specialists who can easily set aside -at times- paralyzing state politics in Sacramento and still get the job done.

Courthouse construction is incredibly unique architecture found in no other buiding, with three distinct pathways for the public, the incarcerated, and the employees all in an effort to keep everyone safe and separated from each other.

Criticisms of CCMS are also not on the mark when you consider the alternative thats currently being used in some courts for Case Management.

Even technologically inept Missouri has one statewide case mangement system called where anyone can look up any case on the internet.

California is the home of the personal computer and technological innovation and yet has no such case management system – but its in the process of developing one.

In one case, this case management system will replace “foxpro running on DOS” in one trial court and about 2 dozen other differing packaged and home-brewed case management systems statewide.

We are one of the few states that lacks a statewide case management system. Our well vetted laws that in lots of cases are pioneering do not permit us to download freeware or purchase a commercial off the shelf product as a suitable alternative to a fully integrated, statewide case management system.

And lastly: The dedicated employees of the AOC took VOLUNTARY furloughs and pay cuts long before they were ever made mandatory and the savings by doing so more than offset all layoffs statewide.

The judicial branch cannot afford the loss of a single human resource be they at the trial court level OR the AOC.

I believe that I speak for everyone that took those voluntary furloughs as I did myself, took the pay cut and worked furlough days anyways so that our associates throughout the entire judicial branch would not suffer with layoffs and the job would get done anyways….because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Now, in various courts around the state, unions are fighting furloughs. They did that in Rhode Island too.

And when push came to shove, the judge told the Rhode Island Governor, “sorry, the unions are correct, you cannot implement a furlough. Instead you have to implement a layoff” which….if you really think about it, is the only viable alternative to a furlough.

Our hearts truly go out to our associates in the trial courts who were laid off but you need to understand that the California court system was never top-down management.

There is no “King George” and while Chief Justice George may indeed be the presiding justice of the California Supreme Court, he has little or nothing to do with the trial courts other than being a fierce advocate for access to justice and equitable funding to provide that access that we as a public demand.

Rather,the AOC is one newly transformed entity entrusted to trying assist in the management of 58 distinctly different kingdoms with a budget thats a fraction of what it should be and about 1/10th the amount of employees that the counties required to do the same job.

EXEMPT EMPLOYEES who put in 60+ hour weeks are the norm at the AOC – not the exception.

I would invite any person anywhere to shadow me for a week while I do my job. I am the only person doing it anywhere in the Judicial Branch and I should be a part of a team of 10 people supporting my particular job statewide.

That part has been well established.

Instead of having those kinds of resources, I like many other people in the AOC are in awe of the tremendous responsibility we have to serve the 37.5 million people of the State of California with about 1/10th of the workforce the counties employed to do the same job.

Up until recently, the AOC had a program where we would go out for a week and walk a mile in the shoes of our associates in the Trial Courts. This program was suspended because our own resources were stretched too thin.

However, I’m willing to bet if you ask Bill Vickery or Ron Overholt if you can shadow any one of our staff for a week and see the dozens of projects each one juggles while often burning the midnight or weekend oil to get it done. Most of these people like myself are are exempt employees or working managers. I think rather than being a critic, you would spin around and be an advocate and wonder like we do at times, how we manage to accomplish so much with so little.

We know. Our families know when they don’t see us for days on end or we bring our work home.

The people of the AOC are proud of the work that we do for the people of the State of California as well as our valued associates and peers in the trial courts.

Being afraid of that which one does not know completely is human nature and we probably don’t do the best at public information and outreach as we should to belay these criticisms.

Fair enough but it isn’t because we don’t try. We simply lack the resources to disseminate this public information in a manner that would offset the criticisms from people and sites like this one.

Walk a mile in our shoes. Your whole perspective will unquestionably change.

20 responses to “In Defense Of The AOC: An Insider’s Viewpoint

  1. I am not sure anyone has been critical of AOC staff or the work they perform. I have always been impressed by the diligence of AOC employees and the overall quality of their work product.

    The criticism of the AOC is focused on its policies and the decision making process used to develop and implement those policies.

    I don’t think you and I would disagree about the poor physical condition of many of the court facilities counties recently transfered to the AOC. As you note, the counties deferred maintenance on those buildings for years. This resulted in the AOC now owning hundreds of buildings in need of repair, but not enough money to complete the repairs because CFP’s were based on historical costs. If the counties could not maintain these buildings, how is the AOC going to maintain them without the money to do so?

    It has to be remembered, the AOC wanted to take over facilities. The AOC lobbied for this responsibility. Therefore, its argument that it has been “mandated” by the legislature to expand its workforce to maintain courthouses, doesn’t ring true.

    As you note, OCCM has a only a fraction of the money its needs to repair and maintain facilities in their current “as is” condition. This begs the question of where is the money going to come from? Will core court operations be reduced further because the AOC now has a huge maintenance responsibility it must contend with? Has the public been served if court facilities are built and maintained at the expense of further reductions in the budgets and staff of trial courts?

    Again, I am not sure anyone would dispute your contention that a statewide CMS would be beneficial and desireable. But, at what cost? The main crticism of CCMS has nothing to do with AOC staff working on the design and development of the project. The debate involves policy decisions that seemed to be made with very little input from the end users as to the product’s design, functionality or costs. Small courts had to beg for input into the design of the system. It wasn’t until about a year ago they were allowed to participate, but don’t even have a vote on the steering committee.

    Is $1.2 billion too much to spend on a CMS? I don’t know, but I am not sure that discussion ever occurred in a forum that allowed for open discussion and analysis of not only the costs, but other possible alternatives. However, I expect Missouri, which you reference in your post, did not spend anywhere this much money on its system. (It also appears Missouri used a CMS software vendor for its system)

    Judge Fall raises legitimate questions in terms of funding priorities. Is it good public policy to continue with projects and programs, such as courthouse construction and CCMS, when frontline court staff are being furloughed, courts are closing and core services are being reduced?

    The fact it is difficult to have a discussion with the AOC/JC regarding these issues and there has been a lack of transparency is why this blog receives the attention it does. The frustration judges, court administrators, staff, unions and the sheriffs have with the AOC has reached a boiling point and this blog provides some release.

    In closing, I think we all appreciate the work of AOC staff.

  2. The comments are thoughtful and correct. The only thing I would add is that eveyone in the counties knew that the AOC was buying a pig-in-poke. The courthouses were trouble for the counties and when, many years ago, the AOC said they wanted them, the counties did the only fiscally responsible thing for them, and let the AOC have them – troubles and all. The issue is not that the AOC now has an un(der)funded mandate. It is the way the AOC jumped head first into the deep end without an approriate plan. Everyone knew that. Many told them that. THEY chose to do it for self serving reasons and should not be able to claim vicitimization for their own choices. Dissenting voices were dismissed. Alternative plans rejected. Were it not that the entire Branch is now in this pickle, we could stand back and giggle. Now, one can only stand back and cry.

  3. While I appreciate the information you provide here, it’s nothing we don’t really already know. The criticism of the AOC as a bureaucracy is not a criticism of its hard working staff. Rather, the criticism of the AOC is directed at what appears to be leadership’s misprioritized attention to matters other than the core purpose of the Judicial Branch.

    That core purpose is to keep the courts open for judicial business, what I call judge stuff: holding hearings and trials, reading and ruling on the matters that come before us in court and in chambers. I serve in one of those outdated courthouses, with inmates walking public hallways while belly chained in groups up to 12 people, clerks crammed into office spaces holding twice as many people as they should, not a single courtroom as large as the smallest specified by modern judicial construction standards, and every other deficiency you can list.

    Still, the core purpose of the Branch is to provide courtrooms where judges do judge stuff. Everything else no matter its worthiness, whether education (I have been a faculty member for qualifying ethics education for almost a decade, and am currently working on the next ethics curriculum), or a statewide case management system (computers are not my strong point, but I appreciate them), or another program or service (and I have served on many other types of statewide committees in several areas) should take a back seat to getting our core function done. Keeping the courts open must occasionally occur at the expense of these or other secondary functions of the Judicial Branch.

    You have written eloquently as a hard working staff member and your efforts, even though anonymously presented, are appreciated. But I speak as an elected official, a judge of the State of California. The constitutional office I hold is a judicial one, and the reason I or any other person holds such an office is to conduct judicial work. We need staff to support it, and we need to provide for the future of the Judicial Branch’s judicial purposes, but without actually doing the judge stuff which is at the core of our branch there is no reason to bother with the rest. Unfortunately, it looks like the AOC chooses to bother with the rest instead of dedicating itself to keeping the courts open full time in order to achieve the core purpose of the Judicial Branch.

    I have no doubt that AOC staff works hard on the things that their administrators tell them to; I have worked on committees, task forces and workgroups with those staff and have seen that hardworking dedication first hand for many more years than you have apparently even been in government service. But in these financially strapped times any work that diverts Judicial Branch resources from the Branch’s core purpose is not helping us get the judge stuff done from day to day.

    That’s the basis and focus of my criticism of the AOC.

    Best regards,
    Tim Fall

    P.S. Please refrain from joining in the name calling by referring to the 58 Superior Courts as 58 “kingdoms.” It is unseemly and only detracts from your message. It also denigrates the hardworking judges and staff who serve honorably in each of those courts.

  4. All opinions written by me do not represent the views of the Judicial Council or the AOC – they are my own opinions based on my own observations.

    The state of california appropriates money to the judicial branch based on project specific or line-item needs.

    There is a bunch of innuendo on this site that the ‘evil empire’ AOC takes the money that the local court saves.

    You won’t find a single court CEO that will support that statement because its patently untrue.

    Money appropriated for court construction and management of courthouses is an entirely different appropriation than money for CCMS or money appropriated for the trial courts.

    They are entirely seperate state appropriations.

    Trial court funding is based on trial court budgeting for any particular trial court. The AOC has a responsibility to watch the dollars coming in the door and providing oversight responsibility for these monies. When a trial court discovers (as San Mateo did) that they blew their own budget….

    Lets put a similar analogy in place. You are an individual that earns a paycheck. Your good credit allows you to have a credit line equal to your annual pay. The choice you make to pull out a credit card instead of paying cash is your choice alone.

    Now, with budget cuts across the board, you are informed that you’re going to be paid less. Its time to look deep into your own budgeting process and see where appropriate cuts can be made without having a serious impact on your quality of life or your ability to eat or make your health insurance co-payments.

    If you fail at this task when you are warned that your paycheck is being cut and you resort to living the same unaltered lifestyle by resorting to using credit cards, you’re going to have a serious problem when you hit your credit limit.

    You are no longer going to be able to eat (think: employ employees) or make your co-payments (think:pay other bills) because you have no money and you have no credit.

    No money dedicated to trial court operations is ever diverted to court construction or court management. Monies saved by furloughs are also not diverted to the AOC. It all stays local. At the state level, trial court funding and trial court construction are entirely seperate appropriations and never the two shall meet.

    The AOC took over the buildings because the numbers of courthouses falling into an unacceptable state of disrepair was growing by the year and in lots of cases, PJ’s and their staffs lobbied equally as fiercely to break free of their counties.

    The AOC studies things really well and extends direct invitations to every single court across the state to participate in both the studies and the resultant recommendations of those studies and forwards them up the chain of command.

    The notion that trial courts play no part in any of these processes is patently untrue. We URGE the participation of as many courts as possible and routinely send out notification to the leadership of our various justice partners.

    However, in lots of cases, courts themselves have NO IN-HOUSE EXPERTISE that would permit them to participate and so, they decline to do so. Every court has been invited input into every process.

    Many larger courts are way more advanced than many of the smaller courts in CCMS (reference my previous mentioning of now obsolete Foxpro running on now obsolete DOS as a CCMS app in a small trial court) so its natural that the most comprehensive system that covers the needs of all courts is the way to go.

    Naturally, the larger courts have had the resources to automate whereas the smaller courts always has had something just beyond a pencil and paper to do the job.

    Again, naturally, if the smallest of courts that is running a horribly unsuitable package of software to do the job (as is the case with Missouri’s underdeveloped system written on Lotus Notes/Domino) that their input might be less valued than someone who has already spent a fortune on a custom comprehensive solution in that covers most, if not all of the bases for court operations.

    Going back to my analogy of your pay check and your credit cards – who bails you out when you spend beyond your means and max your credit line out?

    Now it seems to me that if the AOC were to step in and pay off the debts of a trial court that blew their own budget process – other courts would follow suit and blow their own budget process because there would be no implications to spending beyond your means. Is AOC recievership the answer? Do we hold someone accountable for poor management and budgeting? I’m not sure that we’ve developed these processes. Before, the courts would go to the county. Now, they go to the AOC.

    We are not the federal government. We cannot simply sell treasuries or print money to pay the bills. There are real life implications to living beyond your means. The AOC does need to carefully look into San Mateo’s budgeting and spending because they obviously missed lots of things.

    Again, in my own personal opinion, it is because budget and expenditures are made locally that all eyes should be focused on San Mateo’s court leadership that got them into this situation in the first place. No better party is better suited to this task than the AOC who has been appropriately entrusted to undertake this task.

    My bet is – if you interviewed any of the 28 employees let go in San Mateo County and asked them about local court spending and cutbacks that were made to avoid the current pickle, they just might be able to point to something or a collective LOTS of things that contributed to their current situation.

    To hold the AOC responsible for local court spending and local court budgeting is completely off the mark.

    There is no top-down operations of the AOC over the trial courts. The trial courts are entirely seperate entities and have their own way of doing business, their own budgeting and spending process.

    Just as Equifax and Experian are not responsible for paying your bills if you fail to, the job of the AOC is simply to obseve and report.

    Each court is, in essence, their own ‘kingdom’ and the AOC stays out of other peoples kingdoms unless they are invited in.

    The only thing the AOC does is provide a variety of services to the trial courts that the trial courts cannot provide for themselves and invites each and every court to be a part of each and every process.

    I am from private industry where we run a top-down ship. “consensus” is not something ever sought in private industry.

    While I personally find this process burdensome and bureaucratic that a whole consensus on a direction needs to be established with the buy-in of every participant in every process, I also understand its wholly necessary when it will involve justice partners both inside and outside of the courts, again, to belay many of the entirely false criticisms on this site.

    Check any study and you will find wording that every court in the state was extended an invitation to participate in nearly every process, followed by a list of actual court participants who elected to do so. It would be difficult to be any more transparent than this.

    In every case, someone can go back to their local management and ask the hard question “why didn’t we put our skin in the game?”

    Trust me, it was never because they weren’t invited.

    The process of building consensus amongst all trial courts is paramount to overall transparency of the Judicial Branch.

    If you are not a part of any process, it was the local court management made that decision themselves or did not avail themselves to being in-the-know or a part of the process.

    Many, if not all of these announcements can be found in California Court News.

    Participation in these processes is solely up to the local trial courts. The world does not come to a halt because some court made the decision that they disagree with a process they never participated in. We asked, they declined, often due to a lack of resources.

    With respect to pacwest 50’s direct criticism of the court transfers from the counties – The dissenting voices were largely from the counties.

    The alternative plans of just simply giving the money to the counties was inefficient and a duplicative effort. We would pay for a full time FTE at the county level but have their work metered out to us usually as a part time employee. It was another way for the counties to use the judicial brach (aka the state) to manage their own budgets.

    The state can’t afford to pay for all of these county employees for these services and many of the courts lacked the in-house expertise, yet tried to do some projects with counties with both mixed successes and unmitigated disasters requiring costly retrofits that the AOC has begun to address.

    The following project the AOC had no involvement in but it does well to underscore the issues with this relationship.

    If you look at Santa Clara’s San Martin Courthouse built in 1995, it was closed shortly after it was opened and eventually torn down.

    While this was not a OCCM or AOC project, its illustrative of what happens when no one party is the responsible party and everyone lacks expertise. Although the courthouse was opened and subsequently closed for 10 years before it was torn down and people pointed fingers in every direction, OCCM has a different approach (much like Caltrans does) of utilizing internal staff for vigorous plan-checking and onsite inspections by construction, architectural, engineering and technical professionals.

    Not even the counties and surely the local courts do not have that ability, as witnessed by San Martin Courthouse.

    The AOC now owns the courthouses and seeks that same money, far, far less monies than the counties sought, to provide one comprehensive system of management and operations for all courthouses, their construction and operations and vigorously advocates for these monies to make it a reality.

    This will be my last post on this site as I find some of the unsupported statements made here as being unnecessarily incendiary towards the Judicial Council and the AOC, neither of whom have any meaningful authority over a ‘local kingdom.’

  5. Tim,

    My choice of the analogy/word “kingdom” while wholly inaccurate as you pointed out, was intended to represent the clear demarcation between the AOC and the trial courts.

    Many posts on this site believe that somehow, the courts report to the AOC and that this is all top-down management and is the fault of the AOC leadership.

    My apologies for utilizing the analogy of a ‘kingdom’.

    Again, while many posts here are well reasoned and well thought out like your own, many are not.

    You are a judge. Regrettably, I do not enjoy the freedom of expression as an employee of the judicial branch that you as a judge do and that is regrettable.

  6. I do not disagree that there are many dedicated rank and file staff at the AOC. These employees, however, are not the executive leadership of the AOC, such as Vickrey and Overholt, who are making the fundamental operational decisions and do so from a position of unqualified and absolute power, and which have led the AOC to the point it now finds itself at. Vickrey and the AOC preach transparency, but do not practice it, a reflection again of it not being how things are at the AOC, it’s only about they look, or can be made to look. The fact that these dedicated employees somehow manage to get the day-to-day work of the AOC done, and done well, is probably one of the main reasons the very serious problems that exist at the executive leadership level have gone undetected and unquestioned for so long.

    The fact is the AOC was a very small organization, maybe 50 or 75 staff at most, for many many years, until the passage of some key pieces of legislation in the late 1990’s – the Trial Court Unification Act, the Trial Court Employment Protection and Governance Act, among others – which greatly expanded the size and power of the AOC. That legislative expansion, however, did not also include any administrative oversight provisions to protect against potential abuses of power. Those abuses could have, and should have, been anticipated by the legislature as such abuses have historically occurred in State government, and is one of the primary reasons the State Constitution was amended to eliminate the “spoils system” in State government in the Executive Branch. Not surprisingly, without those same administrative oversight provisions being put into place at the Judicial Branch and the AOC with its rapid expansion and explosive growth, those same abuses, with absolute power concentrated in the hands of a few, are repeating themselves. There is truth in the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    I would also not dispute the usefullness of having an integrated Court Case Management System (CCMS). The CCMS, however, has morphed beyond recognition from its original stated purpose to the point that it had to be re-named as The Phoenix Project. Instead of remaining a focused integrated case management system, the AOC decided to greatly expand the system to include court-wide Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Grants Management, Procurement, and Project Systems ((“Wave 1”); Asset Accounting, Budget Preparation and Planning, Inventory Management, Travel Management, and Treasury (“Wave 2”) and Benefits Administration, Learning Solutions, Performance Management, Recruitment, Succession Management, and Training and Events (“Wave 3”). As one of your readers correctly pointed out, the decisions to expand CCMS and The Phoenix Project were made without any real or meaningful opportunity for participation and input from the trial courts. That was because the AOC, in particular Bill Vickrey and Curt Sunderland, didn’t want that participation and input. Follow the Phoenix Roadmap to its intended conclusion – control of the trial courts by the AOC and elimination of court management and decision making at the local court level – and it becomes easy to see why the AOC doesn’t want the participation and input of the trial courts.

    At the end of the day, this is public money Vickrey and the AOC are spending. There needs to be provisions for administrative oversight at the AOC, and there needs to be accountablity for how, where, and why they are spending public money. If there is really nothing wrong with what they have been doing and are continuing to do, then why would they have to lie about it, or deflect it, or even “spin” it? If these are really such sound decisions, as Vickrey and the AOC simply want everyone to believe, then why can’t those decisions stand up to some scrutiny? Why would it matter that those decisions are being challenged and questioned? What is it that they are so afraid of? Why is there so much anger and resistence regarding a demand for more open dialogue? What is the problem with having an audit if there is nothing to hide? Where is all that supposed transparency and public accountability? Here is a golden opportunity for the AOC to actually practice that transparency and public accountablility instead of just preaching it.

    Wendy Darling

  7. One additional response to “Servingthecourts…” is necessary. The AOC does send out loads of notices about projects and pretends that they accept input. The reality is they send out loads of notices and do not accept any input with which they disagree. The notice is simply their cover. No one with the AOC management is serious about views they believe inconsistent with its efforts. This exists within the AOC and within the Judicial Council. Every message is tailored to fit the desired outcome. This was true on courthouse aquisition, it is true with CCMS and it is true on all other AOC projects.

  8. Dear Serving the Courts, etc.,

    Since you are writing in order to explain what you and others do at the AOC, you are writing from the position of a member of the staff of the judiciary. When you address a judge (even as an anonymous staff member) you should use the title Judge. It will strengthen your arguments and position.

    Best Regards,
    Tim Fall

    P.S. Yes, I also felt this way before I became a judge. Whether I knew a judge personally or professionally, I used the title. It is only appropriate when in any setting even remotely related to the work of the Judicial Branch.

  9. “In Defense of the AOC: an Insider’s Viewpoint”

    I have no desire to insult the “Insider” who writes in defense of the AOC, or to denigrate his or her value to that organization, and my comments should not be taken in that way.
    However, I must say that “Insider”, in his or her exuberance over what he/she sees as the AOC’s value to the branch, overlooks the very heart of the difficulty many of us have with the organization.

    Insider says that he/she (I’ll say “he” for simplicity’s sake) abandoned a very lucrative position in the private sector when given the opportunity to engage in the exciting mission to “reshape the courts”. This is the crux of the matter. What in the world allowed the AOC to see its role in that way? Where in the state constitution is it even hinted that the AOC is thusly tasked? Certainly, this is not the desire of the trial courts or the state’s judges. No, this is administration for the sake of administration.

    In twenty years on the bench I have seen the AOC go from an organization that assists the trial courts in their operations to a self-appointed ruler, along with the Chief and the undemocratically selected Judicial Council. The legislation that Insider and others claim forces the AOC to undertake various tasks is, for the most part, legislation that the Chief Justice and AOC insisted that the legislature enact. To now complain about the added work and need for staff is ludicrous.

    Often, these “shapers” of the system have never set foot in an actual courtroom, and are absolutely clueless as to what goes into the task of judging, yet blithely assume their competence to reshape a system which has courtrooms and judges at its very core. Insider falls prey to this lack of understanding, when, for example, he states that inmates in certain counties were forced to languish for years in jail, waiting for “justice”, conjuring up an image of illegally detained prisoners waiting for the AOC to ride to the rescue. I suggest that Insider needs to read Penal Code Section 1382, which makes it clear than an inmate so situated would be entitled to have his/her (felony) case dismissed within 60 days or arraignment. Putting out the notion that judges are simply keeping unwilling pre-trial detainees locked up for years longer than the law allows, and that the AOC must thus step in to assure “justice”, is a distortion at best.

    Likewise, Insider is just flat wrong when he states that the AOC simply does things for the courts that the courts cannot do for themselves. Would this include seeking the authority to appoint our presiding judges, as the AOC recently tried (again) to do? Would it include taking over CJER from the California Judges Association, as the AOC did years ago? Would it include taking over the authoring of Ethics opinions from CJA as the Chief/Council/AOC is now doing? Would it include attempting to unilaterally mandate AOC approved education classes, which triggered a bloody war three years ago? Would it include writing Jury Instructions? The list of things that the AOC does, and simply should not be involved in, is endless.

    Insider’s lament that the AOC simply has no means to “get the AOC message out” as to its own value to the branch is laughable. The AOC/Council/Chief regularly inundate us with self-congratulatory tomes, such as the hardback book “The Rise of Judicial Administration in California”, written by an AOC “scholar in residence” at taxpayer expense, and given to each judge in the branch, free of charge. The list of AOC publications is endless. The “Justice in the Balance” type master-plans come out with remarkable frequency, and the AOC/Council slick magazine is published regularly as well. These things are, of course, in addition to the monthly (or more often) AOC emails sent to everyone in the branch. Several ( make that many) AOC employees have as their main task the dissemination of the AOC party line, and are ably assisted by members of the Council, the Chief, and others. The AOC couldn’t be putting out more information if it bought its own newspaper.

    The bureaucrat never, ever questions the value of the bureaucracy, or its size. The bureaucracy must grow, and must continually invent needs for this growth. Perhaps this explains the addition of four more employees during the “hard” hiring freeze up there.

    Chuck Horan

  10. Interested Observer

    One of the reasons currently put forward within many courts of why there now exists the debate about lack of oversight of the AOC is the structure of the body which theoretically has oversight responsibilities, the Judicial Council.

    Because the Chief Justice has almost total appointment power over its members (except for the legislative members and the nonvoting ex-officio CJA and Commissioner members), it is felt that only those who are viewed to be part of the AOC family are appointed. And those appointed are repeatedly told they no longer represent the courts where they sit as judges or justices, but “The Branch” and the public.

    “The Branch” is autonomous with the goals of the Judicial Council, and those goals are filtered through the AOC as the staff arm of the Council. As such, the staff of the AOC has great control in defining the policy of the Branch, rather than the other way around. Although there are many advisory groups to the council, most any trial court administrator or judicial officer who has participated in will verify the staff structures the agendas and outcomes. If the advisory group makes a recommendation contrary to the perceived desired outcome, it is sent to another group for “further study” and is never presented to the Council

    Finally, there is the very real perception within the courts that Mr. Vickrey is directly and personally involved with the the Chief Justice on a daily basis in deciding any expenditures and policy directions to be taken. A dissent to any recommendation of AOC staff by a Council member (which of course is a recommendation of Mr. Vickrey) is seen as personal opposition to the Chief Justice’s desires. This is viewed as almost traitorous conduct to the Chief Justice, the person who appointed the member to the Council. Some express the view that he has such influence with the Governor that he can affect their judicial careers, and they fear retribution because of his perceived power.

    For example, as to CCMS, I understand The Chief Justice made it clear at a Judicial Council meeting that it was his desire that the project was in no manner to be affected by the budget crises. It is little wonder then that the Council went ahead with the plan to close the courts one day a month, rather than re-examine the need if the project were curtailed and funds redistributed to the trial courts. It was only after pressure from employee and other groups was exerted in the legislature that the Council decided to allow the disgorgement of some funds to assist the courts as a showing of “shared need.” However, they still proceeded with the court closure legislation.

    It is argued by many that this lack of scrutiny of the actual spending by the AOC, or of scrutiny of the Branch budget allocations and of the concurrent expansion of the AOC is directly attributable to the lack of any democratic process for selection of Judicial Council members and the autocratic control of this body. The members simply act as figureheads and give the appearance of, but not the reality of, governance independent of the AOC leadership. There is no true oversight by the body which has that responsibility. They all “speak with one voice,” as if that is something of which a member of an active Board with huge oversight responsibilities should be proud.

  11. Dagnabbit Chuck, you left me with nothing to add. Outstanding!

  12. fallbrookflats

    I’m not sure how many more ways it can or should be said, but when one is consistently as far off the mark as “Serving the Court” has been, perhaps it is worth one more try. The two major errors of the AOC insider are these:

    1. That we believe that there is anything other than maximum effort being given by he/she or any employee or staffer. Wrong. AOC employees and staff work their respective tushies off. No one from the trial courts, in all the discussions and back and forth we’ve had (both public, private and semi-private), has suggested that the problems we’re complaining about have anything to do with laziness or lack of productivity. If anything, they do what they do too well.

    It is what they do, not how efficiently they go about it that is at the heart of the problem. The policies and priorities that make up the marching orders of AOC employess and staff are what sticks in the collective craws of so many these days.

    One gets some sense of the attitude of the commenter, which is most likely one that prevails where he works. His comments and the familiarity with which he assumes to address judges reveals much.

    Neither he, nor the AOC or anyone connected with that organization has a mandate to “restructure the courts” or to devise methods of insuring compliance from the “kingdoms” when they fail to meekly toe the mark.

    “Serving the Courts” is the mission of AOC. Let me try again; SERVING the Courts……. Yes? Our commenter needs to re-think just about everything he/she has so far printed on this site.

    Number Two, and the really big deal here.

    A Trial Court Judge on the bench, in session and doing “Judge stuff” is the penultimate product of the justice system. It is the front line. It is where the public comes as a matter of right and first choice to receive what the judicial system is set up to provide. Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

    Everything else, and I do mean EVERYTHING ELSE (beg pardon) falls in line behind that intimate, up close and personal, first contact with the citizens of this great republic. Their lives, their fortunes and their personal liberty are at stake every single day in our trial courts. That’s where they come for justice.

    What happens there is the most important, the most personal and the most direct interaction with the government that many people will ever have. Without that Superior Courthouse door available and open for the public to walk through, there is little or no reason for much of the rest of the judicial branch to exist.

    We build courthouses, we staff them, we provide security, and judges and juries and access to the benefits of the law all for one reason; to provide an alternative to the violent self help that is the norm in places where the rule of law does not exist.

    As has been pointed out, the independence of the individual judge and the local court where he or she sits is the absolute, the bedrock, the indispensable, the fundamental, essential requirement of a functional and just court system. If it is not there and available on Main Street in Everytown, U.S.A., the justice system as it was envisioned by the founders and embodied in our Constitution does not exist.

    Attempting to herd the trial courts and the judges who serve them into some semblance of order or predictability favored by those who either don’t do what trial court judges do on a daily basis, or by those who have never been elected to anything, or who are simply in the business of restructuring the courts, is not only contrary to AOC’s basic mission it is a fool’s errand.

    As Trial Court Judges we take oaths and stand for election. We don’t sign employment agreements or consulting contracts. We are responsible to the Constitution, the law and those who place us in the positions we hold and to whom we are ultimately responsible.

    We will not be bullied or coerced or pressured to conform to the wishes of those outside or inside government. We will make our decisions based upon the facts and the law and the obligations of our office as we individually see and understand those duties.

    At its core, that’s what this fight is all about. With all due respect Mr./Ms. AOC Insider, you seem to have failed to understand that.

  13. Amen Flats.

  14. interested observer

    Very well said, Flats.

  15. I want to avoid becoming bogged down in a point-counter point debate with AOC Insider regarding his understanding of trial court funding. However, I do find his comparison of a trial court, which is experiencing financial problems, to a person who irresponsibly relies on credit, incredibly inapt. There are a number of costs a trial court cannot control – court appointed counsel in family law and dependency cases, probate conservatorship investigations, NSI’s and security to name a few. Not only are courts unable to control these costs, courts are mandated to provide these services and were never funded adequately to pay for these mandates. In most courts 75% to 85% of operating costs are salaries and benefits. There are very few areas other than staff where courts can reduce costs.

    I also echo the comments made by other posters – nobody is critical of the way AOC staff executes JC policy. The issue is with the JC/AOC policy formulation and implementation process. There is certainly no shortage of information coming from the AOC in terms of how the policies should be carried out. The lack of transparency and open debate is in the policy development phase.

    More troubling is the general tone of AOC Insider’s last post, which seems to suggest courts should be grateful the AOC is willing to share its expertise with courts. That attitude seems to be prevalent at the AOC from the top down. The AOC seems to forget that the only reason it exists is to support the core functions of the judicial system. It is not to provide operational oversight or, as noted earlier, to shape the future of the judicial system.

    The tail is wagging the dog and in no place can this be seen more than with CCMS. The best case management system in the world will be of little benefit to court users or justice partners if local courts lack the resources to implement and operate the system.

  16. Nobody from the AOC would have written this without the imprimatur from Mr. Vickrey and the Chief Justice. Likewise the trailer bill taking away our ability to elect our Presiding Judges was approved of by the highest authority in the Judicial Council/AOC. The fact they responded on this blog indicates to me they are very worried.

  17. fallbrookflats

    Would it be out of line to make one small suggestion to the County P.J.’s?

    I hope not and I apologize to any who may be offended. But this comes from the heart and is based upon a good number of years of experience.

    Here goes: Please remember that you are there as the elected representative of your Court. You are most certainly not there as the designated representative of AOC/JC in your Court or County.

  18. Reader of the Complaint

    Crtwatcher states:

    “More troubling is the general tone of AOC Insider’s last post, which seems to suggest courts should be grateful the AOC is willing to share its expertise with courts. That attitude seems to be prevalent at the AOC from the top down. The AOC seems to forget that the only reason it exists is to support the core functions of the judicial system. It is not to provide operational oversight or, as noted earlier, to shape the future of the judicial system.”

    It is interesting to note that the OPERATIONAL PLAN FOR CALIFORNIA’S JUDICIAL BRANCH
    FISCAL YEARS 2003–2004 THROUGH 2005–2006 is entitled “LEADING JUSTICE INTO THE FUTURE.” It appears that the AOC did announce some time ago that it was going to make substantial efforts to “shape the future of the judicial system.” The results of that effort are now becoming more clear.

  19. Judicial_Dysfunction

    While many have made credible points on this site, one has to wonder:

    How many of you less than credible entities recently detached yourselves from Pharma’s ‘death panel for seniors’ argument against healthcare and brought your B.S. rhetoric to this debate?

    Reader of the complaint, Google is your friend.

    I know in another life not so long ago, I told you to go read the presidents health plan and you won’t find a single word about ‘death panels for seniors’

    Now I want to point out how your rhetoric continues to undermine many of the well intentioned points being made here by asking you to GO READ THE PLAN.

    AOC Watcher – I’m going to guess you’re a judge or attorney by the use of latin.

    First, you “thread jack” a reply , separating it from its intent as a reply to another post and in doing so alter the context under which it was submitted.

    Internet etiquette says that is bad form.

    Then others indict and convict the poster for being out of touch when its apparent that the evidence was altered and taken out of context.

    ….And some of you call yourselves JUDGES?

    I believe you’ve alienated just about everyone who is not an elected official or a union crony from your grand charade and made it so no one else dares participate in the discussion.

    You have alienated all of the people in the AOC and I’m sure that well intended reply of “serving”, taken out of context will cause the AOC to ferret them out for termination… all because they love their job and expressed it.

    You’ve done exactly what you accuse your opponent the AOC of doing – shut out everyone that disagrees with you out of the debate and worse, many of you “so called” judges do so using psudonyms!


    If Elmer Fudd identifies himself as a judge, internet etiquette says call the bastard Elmer Fudd. Judicial etiquette that you insist on, suggests that others denigrate the profession by making reference to Judge Elmer Fudd.

    Internet etiquette says we’re all no better than dirt even if you are an elected judge, unless you can be positively identified as such.

    Posting in an unconfirmed way where your identity has not been verified puts you in the same camp as the judge in Nigeria that sent an email this morning that said I am to get two chests at the airport tomorrow with 52 million USD in them.

    Man up.

    Grow some.

    If you are an elected judge, don’t post under a psudonym!

    Now from internet etiquette to internet law.

    Using a psudonym on the internet to harass or annoy anyone is a violation of title 47, chapter 5, SubchapterII, part 1, section 223 of U.S. Code and the FBI offices are right across the street from the AOC.

    Each individual offending post may cost you 1 year in jail and $50,000.00

    Then again, what do I know.

    I’m neither a lawyer or a judge.

  20. FF’s Internet Rule Number 1. Even on the very best of blogs, trolls will appear.

    FF’s Internet Rule Number 2. If you don’t feed the trolls they will go away.