As I sat listening to the proceedings during the Judicial Council’s meeting last Friday, I eagerly awaited to hear from the Honorable Katherine Feinstein. Why is that? Well, she is currently the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, (SFSC) and unless you’ve been on Mars, in a cave, under a rock, asleep, you know that the SFSC is facing a disaster that is almost unprecedented in California judicial history.
Thanks to the California legislature’s slashing of the judiciary’s budget, and the tone-deaf response by the AOC and Judicial Council to the reduction in trial court funding, SFSC issued layoff notices to 200 employees resulting in a 40% reduction of court staff and the closure of 25 courtrooms in the civil court division.
Judge Feinstein has been on a whirlwind press tour appearing on local and national television and as well as print media trying to draw attention to the state of affairs in the City by the Bay.
The AOC tried to deflect any negative attention to its spending habits by releasing an audit claiming that SFSC has been mismanaging its budget. (Am I the only one that sees the irony in the AOC accusing a trial court of mismanaging its budget? Anyone? Anyone?)
So when Judge Feinstein took the microphone to speak before the JC, I took a deep breath and wondered whether she’d tell them what was really on her mind. She did that and a whole lot more. In her speech Judge Feinstein was brutally honest calling out the AOC for giving the appearance that it lacked interest in San Francisco’s crisis, and their continued funding of questionable projects such as CCMS.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from her statement:
“…I remain stunned that neither I, nor our Court Executive Officer, received a single phone call from anyone in the Administrative Office of the Courts – the entity that is supposed to provide services and support to the trial courts.”
“…the fact that the AOC ever proposed spending $26 million on a single courtroom in a county with two Judges, five staff and a total county population of 1,175 people, and likewise spending $52 million on three courtrooms in a county with two Judges and 17 staff members is, to my mind, absurd.”
“CCMS may have been a great idea when ideas were grand and money was plentiful. Today, it is clearly overdesigned, over budget, and overdue.”
“…don’t force the rest of us to abandon basic access to justice in favor of feeding this technology beast with trial court trust funds.”
You can read the entirety of Judge Feinstein’s statement below.
Madam Chief Justice and Members of the Council, thank you for the opportunity to address you today.
San Francisco is the first county to suffer the serious impacts of the staggeringly inadequate state budget. This week, we delivered layoff notices to 41 percent of our staff and announced plans to close 25 of our 63 courtrooms.
I will be forever grateful to the many Justices, Judges and Court Executives, who called this week, from around the state, offering suggestions, help and consolation during this crisis. By contrast, I remain stunned that neither I, nor our Court Executive Officer, received a single phone call from anyone in the Administrative Office of the Courts – the entity that is supposed to provide services and support to the trial courts.
San Francisco may have been the first trial court to fall, but I know that others are soon to follow, and you know that too. Perhaps the AOC, as your staff agency, will offer them some help and support. I hope so.
I am addressing you today because if I can help save one job for one employee, or keep one more courtroom open, I am going to do whatever it takes to do so. You hold in your hands the ability to mitigate a large portion of
the effects of this disastrous situation. The question is whether you will choose to do so.
I wish today to add my voice to those of so many of my colleagues around the state in asking you to make additional funds available for our trial courts. In doing so, I realize that this will require a close and painful re-examination of undertakings previously considered sacrosanct.
First, I do not quarrel with the needs of my sister counties for safe and adequate courthouses. But, the fact that the AOC ever proposed spending $26 million on a single courtroom in a county with two Judges, five staff and a total county population of 1,175 people, and likewise spending $52 million on three courtrooms in a county with two Judges and 17 staff members is, to my mind, absurd. I realize that these projects have now been curtailed in scope. But how could projects, so out of proportion with plausible need, ever have been deemed reasonable in the first place?
This leads me to also ask that you take a hard look at the staff of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which recommended these expenditures. In 1998, the AOC had 268 employees. Since 1998, that number has grown more than three-and-a-half fold — 10 percent in the last three years alone. While every trial court in the state has been tightening its belt, the AOC has been loosening its own. While we, and other trial courts are firing, your staff is hiring. This wild expansion of an administrative bureaucracy in these times is simply unconscionable.
Your AOC staff also has overseen the expenditure of at least $400 million on the still-dysfunctional California Court Case Management System. Despite these huge expenditures, CCMS is not fully operational in a single county. Bits and pieces of it are operational in only seven counties. CCMS may have been a great idea when ideas were grand and money was plentiful. Today, it is clearly overdesigned, over budget, and overdue.
The estimates to have CCMS up and running in all counties range up to $2 billion. There is no reason to believe that this amount of money will be available before the technology upon which CCMS is built is obsolete. Allow the counties who have CCMS, want it, and can pay for it, to keep it. But, don’t force the rest of us to abandon basic access to justice in favor of feeding this technology beast with trial court trust funds.
I urge you to re-examine your allocations immediately. These runaway plans, systems and staff are sucking tens of millions of dollars from the trial courts and that must be reversed.
I know that these are terribly difficult times, not just for the trial courts, but for this Council and for the AOC, too. But I also know that our citizens’ access to justice is fundamental and paramount. That access occurs in our trial courts. For our justice system to survive, it is your solemn duty to preserve this access. To fulfill this duty in tough economic times, our branch needs to jettison projects that divert us from the preservation of our citizenry’s fundamental rights. If you are true to your mission, I know that you will do this.
Thank you very much.