by Paula Negley
On the top shelf of my bookcase sits an odd assortment of books that, to the undiscerning eye, would appear to have no special significance. For many years there sat among these volumes a small paperback about the size of a drugstore novel, the spine so creased and worn that the title was no longer readable, and on the front piece a brief handwritten inscription: “To Paula, because it is important to know the meaning of things. Max Wisot.”
Judge Wisot was one of several judges my father worked for in a public service career in the California court system that spanned several decades, and that small and seemingly unimportant book was a pocket law dictionary Judge Wisot gave to me when I was eight years old. In a time when such a thing was uncommon, it was my rare and special privilege to periodically accompany my father to work, and I would spend the day sitting in the gallery observing the court proceedings, paging through my pocket law dictionary Judge Wisot had so thoughtfully given me, looking up the words I didn’t know the meaning of.
For years I treasured that small book as one of my most cherished possessions, and paging through it I could remember with clarity how and when it was I first came to love the law, and the many dedicated people at the Court, the court clerks, bailiffs, court reporters, court administrators, attorneys and judges, who played such a significant and important role in making that happen.
I remember asking Judge Wisot once, when he was struggling with a difficult case then before his bench, why it was so hard for him to come to a decision, and the importance of the answer he gave to my question has always stayed with me: “Mine is not a duty of convenience or of expediency, but of first to reason, and from there to fairness and to justice, and if that requires a longer or more difficult path, then that is the duty owed.”
In overwhelming measure it was because of the many people I came to know at the court, and especially people like Judge Wisot, and the example that they set for me, that I came to have a profound and deep trust, respect and belief in the California court system and the Judicial Branch.
That trust, that respect, and that belief was shattered and destroyed by what I personally experienced and witnessed as an employee of the Judicial Council of California in the Administrative Office of the Courts.
It is unacceptable and inexcusable that any public employee should live in fear, or hesitate in apprehension of retaliation, to come forward in good faith and report misconduct or abuse of authority or misuse of public funds in their workplace. It is especially troubling and deeply disturbing that this should occur in the judicial branch of State government, or that such misconduct would be validated by the executive office of the AOC.
But this is the reality for the State employees within the Administrative Office of the Courts.
This committee must heed the many, many calls from the numerous constituencies the AOC is supposed to serve, for actual, meaningful, and credible accountability and transparency from the AOC, and this committee must reject the AOC’s unsupportable claims that the agency currently adheres to these fundamental principles. This committee must ask the hard questions and demand of the AOC substantive and forthcoming answers. You must reject empty and rehearsed responses carefully laden with meaningless and evasive platitudes, and demand instead the unvarnished truth, supported by unfiltered and unadulterated evidence and documentation. You must refuse to accept the AOC’s path of convenience and expediency, and you must demand instead full disclosure and accountability. If that requires a longer or more difficult path, then that is the duty owed.
It is imperative that this committee and the State legislature draft, propose and enact some meaningful measures of employment protection for the public employees of the Judicial Branch and in particular for the employees of the AOC. At a minimum, this committee and the State Legislature need to amend existing state law under Government Code section 3525 and extend to the employees of the AOC the protections under the Excluded Employee Bill of Rights given to all other State excluded employees, including the full measure of appeal and review to a neutral third party outside of the AOC’s influence and control. You must send a strong and unambiguous message to the AOC executive leadership and management that it simply will not be permitted or tolerated that any state employee, especially the employees of the AOC, to be punished for coming forward and reporting misconduct or misuse of public funds in their workplace and for telling the truth.
In the words of Abigail Adams, “great necessities call out great virtues” and it is in times of great necessity “that those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.” In this moment of great necessity, the importance of these words are as true and relevant today, before this committee, as they were when Abigail Adams wrote them over two hundred years ago.
On behalf of the past, present, and future employees of the California Judicial Branch and the Administrative Office of the Courts, I ask this committee to honor their public service by doing what the AOC has failed to do. I ask this Committee to exercise the leadership and set the example that the AOC’s executive office has blithely ignored, and I ask that you honor the public service of the AOC employees by extending to them at least these minimum employment protection rights currently afforded all other State excluded employees and ensure that the abuses that have been permitted at the AOC are not only stopped, but prevented from recurring in the future. That, too, is the duty owed, and it is a one of lasting importance and necessity.
Paula J. Negley is a former AOC staff member and until April of this year worked in the Human Resources Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts. This is a copy of a letter she submitted to the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review.