Judicial Wars: Judge and Union Leader Unite In Opposition to Redirecting Court Construction Funds

They say politics make for strange bedfellows.  Still, it was quite interesting to read an opinion piece printed in the Capitol Weekly in which the authors of the piece voiced their opposition to any plan to redirect court construction funds away from building new courts and back into the budgets of courts facing severe budget deficits.  What really made the piece interesting was that the authors were Judge Mary Ann O’Malley, presiding judge of Contra Costa County, and Bob Balgenorth who is listed as “president of the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, which represents about 800,000 construction workers.”

If anyone thought naively that the fight over court construction funds was going to be a simple affair, they need only look at this article as a taste of what’s to come. The fight ahead is going to be incredibly emotional for both sides it has the possibility of turning into an ugly mud fight turning allies into enemies.

22 responses to “Judicial Wars: Judge and Union Leader Unite In Opposition to Redirecting Court Construction Funds

  1. Nathaniel Woodhull

    Perhaps we could start a collection to buy Judge O’Malley a copy of David Rothman’s Third Edition of the California Judicial Conduct Handbook…

    Lending support to a particular trade union????

  2. Obi-Wan Kenobi

    Judge O’Malley has a new courthouse under construction in East Pittsburgh. Perhaps she feels that the completion of this new courthouse could be jepordized by the diversion of SOME funds.

    Actually, what should happen is the east contra costa county courthouse should be completed without further delay. The diversion of funds speaks to those projects currently under design, yet not going under construction for at least another year.

    It takes about a year to a year and a half of design and design development before construction starts. You can still design the courthouses – just slow the pace of construction down. As it is, the AOC’s limited OCCM staff is stretched beyond their limits working on numerous projects simultaneously. There are ways to spend that money that offer a return on investment that would pay for new courthouses year after year after year by harvesting energy and operational savings out of the existing system.

    The proposal to slow construction is a modest proposal. Divert 1/2 of the construction funds for a period of 3 years. Use have that savings to automate existing courthouses that aren’t going to be replaced (it still creates LOTS of construction jobs) and utilize that derived savings on top of existing construction funds to build even more courthouses in the later years in a manner that sustains construction well beyond the 5 billion dollar mark. Enough in fact to build a 2 new courthouses every year just like Judge O’Malley’s East Contra Costa Courthouse without expending another dime in bond money or public funds and still have savings left over to fully employ all existing judicial branch personnel.

    One item that speaks to the ignorance of the article writers is the fact that thus far, the land has been given to the AOC. The AOC didn’t have to pay for this land for new courthouses. It was free now, it will be the same piece of free property later.

    The AOC has also pre-qualified the prime contractors it has chosen both to build the courthouses as well as to act as construction managers at risk to manage the constructon. It isn’t like the courthouses are going out to a completely transparent, open bidding process. There are certain companies that will make these bids and certain companies that will be awarded these bids.

    Some of those companies, like the company designing the Stockton courthouse are not California companies. Stockton’s courthouse is creating jobs in Seattle, Virginia and Southern California when Stockton’s unemployment is approaching 30%.

    We won’t even mention that not one thin dime of federal American Reinvestment & Recovery Act monies are involved in any of these projects when these funds could account for 20% of the total of construction costs. Money is being left on the table that could keep the courts open.

  3. Name Withheld

    Peter Krause (AG) has filed first amended complaints in the Aleut and Jacobs Facilities cases. Trial by jury is requested.

  4. It is nice to see Judge O’Malley is so concerned about protecting the jobs of those in the construction trades. Too bad she doesn’t show the same concern for those trial court employees who will continue to be furloughed and, in some courts, laid off.

  5. I’m sincerely sorry for the court employees that are being furloughed and losing perhaps 15 percent of their pay.
    But that pales compared to what’s happened to construction workers; 30 percent of them have lost 100 percent of their pay while needed public projects remain unbuilt.
    The column is right on.

    • Builder

      As noted, Court employees have not only been furloughed, but some have been laid off. I don’t think using public funds to build courthouses solely for the sake of supporting the construction industry can be justified. Public policies must be prioritized. I do not think building new courthouses is a higher priority than keeping existing courthouses open and fully staffed. You many disagree. However, there has never been an opportunity to within the judicial branch to have this discussion.

      I think most people who post here see a need to build new courthouses. Not only will new buildings help the construction industry, it will also improve access to justice, which is a legitimate goal of the judical branch. However, it shouldn’t be an all or nothing proposition.

      Why can’t the AOC take a look at what is needed to provide a minimal level of service to the public and which courthouses projects are truly priorities and develop a strategy to allocate available funds between operations and construction?

  6. L. A. Observer


    Court employees around the state are being laid off not just furloughed. And the lay offs are only going to increase without a solution.

  7. Wendy Darling

    Perhaps if the public works projects attached to the AOC, such as CCMS and the use of unlicensed contractors in the trial courts, had had responsible oversight, administration, and management, with real accountability and transparency, instead of being allowed to be infected by malfeasance, patronage, fraud, and corruption, there wouldn’t be a need for employee furloughs and layoffs, or suspension of projects. But that is what was allowed to happen, and is being allowed to continue to happen, by the Chief Justice, Vickrey, Overholt, and the Judicial Council.

    The purpose of the Judicial Branch is not to provide jobs in the construction trades.

    Didn’t we learn anything from Enron?

  8. The AOC as a political organization has the right to argue that the use of SB1407 money for court house construction, even in the face of employee, layoffs is a valid use of the money. In other words, the AOC has the right to defend its policy decisions even to the detriment of trial court employees and the efforts to keep the courts open.

    However, it is troubling that a judicial officer would implicate the prestige of her office to further the goals of one trade union and its members. Not only is that to the exclusion of all other workers, it suggests that at least this one judge is willing to use her office to lobby a particular outcome which (albeit may benefit the judiciary) furthers the goals of a particular private union and its members. This is very troubling and should give everyone in the judicial branch pause.

    The appearance is not good. And one can only question why she would do it and at whose request. If she did it for others, they need to think of what damage they may do to the judiciary in their headlong efforts to get their way. If she did it for her own reasons, then she needs to consider the ethical implications of her actions.

    In the AOC’s drive to get their way, there may be a few too many “road kill!”

  9. Nathaniel Woodhull

    pacwest50 is right on point. When a judge lends the prestige of their office in this manner it is clearly a violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics. Nothing will be done however because the document in question was most likely written by another source. Check out: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/reference/documents/factsheets/SB1407.pdf

  10. PattyJaneSmith

    My question is how do Judge O’Malley and Bob Belgenorth know each other? How is it that these two people came together to write this article? Who set it up? It reeks of the AOC. So amateurish of Curt Child and Bill Vickery. This combination of writers is SO clearly contrived and being in the Capitol weekly only further confirms what we all know – this is blatantly political and meant to influence Legislators.

  11. I found the Chief Justice’s comment interesting.

    “Our judicial system does not need, want, or expect palaces,” Chief Justice Ronald George has said. “But it does deserve facilities that are secure, well maintained, and adequate to serve the public’s needs.”

    The AOC/OCCM budgets between $900 and $1,000/sq. ft. for new courthouses. This is for construction and design only, not site acquistion. According to the following link, the cost per sq. foot for a courthouse in California should be less than $300.00. I have no idea of what a realistic cost should be, but if the AOC is budgeting to pay 2 to 3 times the going rate, it is no surprise the construction industry is looking to the AOC to save it.
    I expect someone out there knows what a good ballpark estimate for a courthouse in California would be.


    • Obi-Wan Kenobi

      U.S. General Services Administration’s courthouse team is bringing in new courthouses at less than 300 psf – and that includes site acquisition according to the GAO – who reported to congress when congress budgeted only 55.00 psf.

      At $1,000.00 psf the chief isn’t looking for palaces. Palaces are for princesses. Temples of justice are more appropriate for gods, hence the higher price.

      • Obi-Wan Kenobi

        I might add that the AOC is getting all of its land donated to it – or in the case of federal properties like sisk, purchasing it for a dollar- so site acquisition costs are negligible. GSA has had to pay for most of its sites. The issue here is an open bidding process to all comers – and not just the prequalified bidders.

    • Obi-Wan Kenobi

      Other unmentioned ironies from the CJ-

      “But it does deserve facilities that are secure, well maintained, and adequate to serve the public’s needs.”

      Secure – managed by Siemens Building Systems at a significant sole source master services agreement cost as opposed to an open public bid for systems.

      Well Maintained – By unlicensed (but now licensed) DOD construction contractors that charge Haliburton /KBR prices of $128.00 to change a light bulb. They’re a construction companies with guaranteed DOD – style cost plus contracts who make far more money by systems failing than they could ever dream of making my maintaining them properly – and it shows in many ways.

      Adequate to serve the publics needs. Except on the third wednesday of every month, Except in 9 courthouses in L.A. to be shut down, two in San Bernardino already shut down, mendocino, butte, siskyou, and the list goes on and on.

      Irony and chutzpah are becoming hallmarks.

  12. I’ve heard lots of good things about Judge O’Malley and I understand her position but respectfully disagree with it. Judge McCoy’s position to temporarily divert courthouse construction funds to help keep LA courts open to the public and to avoid massive layoffs is a thoughtful response to the problems in LA. It would be equally reasonable for another court to decide that it was best for them to build a new courthouse if that helped them best serve the public. The problem I keep having is that our undemocratic JC and its administrative arm the AOC refuses to allow open and honest debate regarding these issues or respect in the hard work , intelligence and common sense of the local courts to make individualized decisions as to how best to serve the taxpayers and our employees. Finally I find it fascinating the AOC spin machine is in overdrive regarding the failed CCMS and now courthouse construction money issue. The great people on this blog who care deeply about our branch of government are being heard and I remain optimistic that meaningful change will occur by democratizing the JC.

  13. Omerta believes this is easy to understand once one knows the players and what they want.

    Players #1 and 2 are Judge Mary Anne O’Malley and her husband, Dan O’Malley. Dan O’Malley is involved in a contested race to see who will be the District Attorney of Contra Costa County. He needs political support and endorsements. Judge O’Malley wants to help her husband become the District Attorney. Omerta also believes that she has an ambition to be a “big player” in the Judicial Branch.

    Judge O’Malley has enough brainpower to write an article about SB 1407 on her own. So why did she colloborate with a Mr. Bob Balgenorth
    in the authorship of an article that urges the use of SB 1407 funds for only courthouse construction and not for keeping the courts open?

    Enter stage right Mr. Bob Balgenorth, player #3. He is the President of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. This Council is the AFL-CIO Construction Union in California. He wants his workers to build courthouses at $1000.00 a square foot (while the Federal Government builds courthouses for about $300.00 a square foot, plus or minus).

    Here is what Judge O’malley has accomplished by publishing this article with her co-author, Mr. Balgenorth: political support for her husband and showing everyone she is an important figure in the California Judiciary.

    Mr. Balgenorth gains a prestige by having his name associated with an important judge and he gains prestige with his members because he is trying to get them employment.

    Mr. Dan O’Malley increases his chances of getting the AFL-CIO endorsement.

    There have been some downsides as there always are in these matters.

    1. Judge O’Malley has involved herself, her court, all of the 53 Presiding Judges who supported her position on SB 1407, the AOC, the Judicial Council, and the Chief Justice in a labor dispute. If SB 1407 funds are used only for construction of courthouses this will probably result in pay cuts or layoffs for clerks, interpreters, and other court workers; if SB 1407 funds are used, in total or in part, to keep the courthouses open this will hurt the members of the building trades.

    2.By her actions the Judge has supported contruction workers rather than the workers in her court. Omerta suspects these court workers are not very pleased with her.

    3. The Judge has given the impression to everyone that she has used her official position to benefit her husband.

    4. Omerta doubts that many of the 53 judges who backed her position of SB 1407 are happy with her. She did a bait and switch on them. Omerta suspects none of them thought that she would engage in this relationship with the AFL-CIO.

    What quixotic characters will the JC/AOC come up with next to try and close the courthouses so that they can keep CCMS and court construction going?

    • Obi-Wan Kenobi

      Oh the tangled webs the AOC weaves.

      I forgot that these O’Malley’s were married but the heated race for DA is well known and well publicized in the bay area.

      Omerta has hit the nail on the head – and Dan O’Malley used to be a superior court judge who has been accused by his opponent of ‘felonious behavior’ when a party was thrown and campaign funds were raised in the D.A.’s office.

      Then there is the charges that the office besieged by scandal of a sexually charged good ol boy network that includes what some consider politically motivated charges of charging Michael Gressett with rape for having consentual kinky BDSM sex with a coworker that included the use of firearms, handcuffs, a knife and ice cubes and later remorse by the woman – another employee of the DA’s office. Michael Gressett has also run for DA 3 times. Charge Gressett and he is doomed as a DA candidate – and charged he was.

      Mary Ann O’Malley already accused of breaching ethics through a video endorsing her husband, a political candidate early on in the campaign.

      The O’Malley’s have a virtual right of succession going on out there in contra costa with the DA’s office.

  14. Although the AOC behaves as if it is a political organization, it is in fact, the administrative arm of the judicial branch. This is precisely the problem. The AOC needs to stay out of politics, and knock off the lobbying and P.R. Their no-holds-barred public relations campaign, at tax payer expense, is an embarrassment to the judicial branch. Youtube videos about CCMS and court construction, downloaded within the past month or so (Eight or nine total, though I’ve stopped counting) all with the appearance of legitimate “news broadcasts” are nothing more than distasteful advertisements for controversial judicial branch policy decisions. What’s next? AOC Facebook surveys?

    Then comes the O’Malley/Belgenorth letter. What on earth is the AOC publicity machine thinking? Or, maybe they’re not. Or, maybe whoever they’ve put in charge of their media hijinks, a.k.a. public relations campaign, does not comprehend the fundamental ethos of the judiciary. Or maybe, all of the above.

    Legitimate media outlets whether they be “new” media, print media or television media have all independently challenged the AOC on any number of fronts, including issues ranging from their bloated bureaucracy to the CCMS debacle to their lack of transparency. From Sacramento to San Diego, Los Angeles to the northern reaches of the state, there is a hue and cry from the “fourth estate”calling for audits and oversight, open records and whistle blower protection. In response, the AOC pumps up its media machine and the only “good news” is that being promoted by their very own spin meisters

  15. So true Sunshine. The use of State money for lobbyists, public relations, parties and dinners for Council members and other judges, not to mention assistance for the Chief Justice in an election cycle, is all of questionable practice.

  16. So many things come to mind when I read the article and this stream of comments.

    Versal-Versal you are right that the leadership of the Judiciary doesn’t believe there is any room for dissenting voices or differences. Nor do they believe that local courts should have any say about what is good for their respective court or how to best serve the citizens in their county. What may be good for LA may certainly not be good for Contra Costa and that is why the locals courts must have some say in prioritizing scarce resources. Yes, I understand that some things in the Judiciary should be uniform – forms and certain adminsirative functions. But there has to be room to accomodate local needs based on the circumstance of that given court and county. This obsesssion to control and have their way including on 1407 funds will lead to very ruin of us all. This obsession will all be at the expense of the trial courts and the public.

    Here are some cold hard facts to consider.

    The governor’s budget proposes that approximately $300 million of trial court funding will come from this automated speeding proposal – that proposal is dead in the water. So that is a $300 million hole in the trial court budget.

    Next the governor proposes that an approximate $270 million of trial court assistance will be backed out of the general fund and instead will come from this redevelopment agency rip-off. That’s dead too. Twice this effort has been struck down. This is budget hole number two.

    Next, we all know the federal money is not going to come through as the governor hopes so that creates another $100 million hole.

    Add that up and we’re looking at an approximate $700 million hole out of an approximate $3 billion budget.


    If you think one court closure a month is bad enough – think of what two a month means.

    Here’s the second set of cold hard facts. We have a $20 billion deficit in California and every program is bleeding to death. Essential human service programs can’t serve the elderly, disabled and infirmed. Public schools have been cut by nearly $18 billion in two years. These very critical programs don’t have piles of money sitting around that they are prioritizing for construction, unlike the AOC.

    Does anyone really think that the Legislature is going to cut more from schools and foster care to bail out the trial courts just so Ron George and Bill Vickery can have their way? So where will the money come from?

    And when the AOC cuts our collective nose off to spite our collective face by making sure no 1407 funds can be used to help fill that approximate $700 million hole- what will we do???

    The legislature may decide to redirect some of that 1407 money to help the trial courts. They may decide to sweep up all of the end-balances, including 1407 and redirect them to other programs entirely. Or they may just decide to let this branch of government resolve it’s own problems and the consequences will rest with the whoever makes the decisions. All of it stinks, but could be avoided if the AOC leadership weren’t so entrenced.

    • There have been many thoughtful and thought-provoking posts on this blog. However, I am not sure I have ever read a better one than the one posted by “The Wolf” above. It goes directly to the heart of the issue by asking the simple question – “Where is the money to going to come from?”