Justice Denied: How a bureaucracy denies Californians safe, open courts.
California’s court system handles 9 million cases a year. Families, businesses, victims of crime and law enforcement all depend on our fast, fair and effective work in order to settle disputes, keep businesses moving, see justice served, and protect the public. Judges throughout our county courts have never failed to give the citizens of the State of California their day in court. However, on September 16, 2009, Domestic Violence victims, children in dependency courts and those who seek the court’s protection were met with “closed for business” signs when they appeared at their courts.
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) made a determination during this most recent budget crisis to choose to protect its bureaucracy, its turf and a 1.7 billion dollar computer system over open, safe and functioning courtrooms.
The touchstone of the judiciary is transparency, accountability and access to the courts. Judges must be responsible for the administration of justice and must disclose not only how we make our decisions, but why we make our decisions. Judges make these decisions everyday in open court, on the record, subject to public scrutiny. Further, it is imperative that judges strive to ensure that all citizens, rich or poor, strong or weak, injured and needy have access to the courts when they most need it.
But the AOC, which controls the $3.66 billion budget for California’s county trial courts, has operated outside of public oversight – with predictable results.
Consider these facts:
- Just last month, the Daily Journal found that a new computer system for the court is expected to cost $1.75 billion, 35% more than AOC administrators reported to the Legislature last year. The system is still years from completion. That’s equivalent to a $1 million computer system per judge in the state of California
- According to the Department of Finance, the AOC is at least three years from selling the first of $5 billion in bonds to refurbish and rebuild courthouses – but is still taking hundreds of millions in fees from county trial courts every year; fees that would otherwise be used for court operations and keeping courts open to the public.
- In July, the Judicial Council transferred $9.28 million dollars to prevent cuts to court-appointed dependency council from funding sources that the AOC had previously said did not exist.
- While county courts have been forced to layoff employees, the AOC continues to hire high priced employees. In fact, the AOC has grown over 70% since 2004 and continues to hire despite a hiring freeze.
Massive new spending on buildings and computer systems at a time when the public is feeling the pinch cries out for a more open public debate. Despite judges wanting to keep our courts open and safe, we have been unable to move the AOC to focus its priorities and the taxpayer’s money on transparent, accountable, open courts.
Unfortunately, the AOC’s top administrators have grown accustomed to working in the dark. Unlike every other public agency in California, the Administrative Office of Courts is not required to make its records, including its budgets, available to the public. The Judicial Council and the AOC do not provide the public with meaningful opportunities to hear and provide input on matters that affect us all, and there are no independent audits of the AOC’s books.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Fortunately, discussions to shine a light on the AOC will start in earnest today when the Judiciary’s top leaders come to Sacramento for a special hearing on accountability.
Here are some conditions that the Legislature could set to make sure that Californians are seeing the full picture on the judiciary:
- Insist that keeping California’s courtrooms open and maintaining public services is the first priority of the courts.
- Provide the public access to administrative records, including budgets.
- Provide real opportunities for public input in decision-making.
- Require independent financial audits of both the AOC and the courts.
Let me be clear, Judges of the State of California want to be part of the solution and contribute to our judiciary and the state during these dire economic times. Indeed, over 90% of the judges in our state have voluntarily forfeited a portion of their salaries to contribute to the needs of Californians during this crisis. Its time the court’s bureaucracy does the same.
Dan Goldstein is a superior court judge and a director of the Alliance of California Judges. He is a lecturer of Management ethics and philosophies at San Diego State University.