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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Courts chief Willam Vickrey
will step down in September

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

William C. Vickrey, the longtime administrator of the California court system, will retire next fall, ending nearly two decades of collaboration with three chief justices on major reforms of the state’s judicial branch.

Although his announcement came just weeks after two lawmakers called for his resignation in the wake of a blistering state audit of the court case management system, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Vickrey told her of his planned retirement in August but agreed to stay on through the current legislative session. She praised him for his “monumental contributions to the administration of justice” and said he will be “difficult to replace.”

Former Chief Justice Ronald George also said he asked Vickrey last summer to stay on to help with Cantil-Sakauye’s transition to the court’s top job, which she assumed in December.

Hours after Vickrey’s announcement, Cantil-Sakauye issued a nearly four-minute video in which she announced the appointment of a committee to conduct a “top to bottom” evaluation of the Administrative Office of the Courts that Vickrey presides over. “I feel it is necessary to assess and review all aspects of the AOC to help reset priorities and goals that focus on core services to the courts,” the chief justice said. The 14-member committee will be chaired by Arthur Scotland, retired presiding judge of the Court of Appeal in Sacramento.

Vickrey’s retirement comes at a time of upheaval for the courts, including George’s retirement and the quick appointment of his successor, ongoing budget cuts, including a proposal by Gov. Brown for a permanent $200 million reduction, a highly critical audit of the court case management system, increased legislative scrutiny and opposition to the AOC’s centralized power by an increasingly vocal group of judges.

But acknowledging he is “in the eye of the storm right now,” Vickrey said most of his tenure with the courts has been marked by financial and other tensions. “That’s part of the job,” he said. “I would like to be leaving when there aren’t financial challenges but that I think is not the reality of life.” He and his wife, Susan, a school administrator, both decided to retire 18 months ago, he said, and delayed those plans because of George’s retirement and the many issues facing the judiciary. But the couple decided to move ahead because “there will never be a right time, there’s always another hill around the corner.”

In a letter to Cantil-Sakauye formalizing his Sept. 9 retirement, Vickrey wrote, “I recognize that our judiciary and our entire state are immersed in a most severe financial crisis. With your leadership and the direction and support of our Judicial Council, our partners in the bar and the cooperation of the legislative and executive branches, the foundation is in place to keep our courts open next year, dependent on the public’s extension of various revenues.” Sept. 9, Vickrey noted, follows the end of the current legislative session and falls before the Sept. 15 start of the new Judicial Council members’ term.

William VickreyVickrey, 63, presided over the growth of the Administrative Office of the Courts from a small agency when he took over in 1992 to the biggest court system in the nation, with more than 2,000 judicial officers and 21,000 court employees. He oversaw reforms that included unification of municipal and trial courts and state funding of those courts, the transfer of courthouse ownership from counties to the state, reforms to the jury system and long-range strategic planning. Vickrey said progress has been made on many fronts on his watch, including giving courts more direct control over their budgets, the creation of more uniform rules of practice and greater public access to the courts. “The goal here is about trying to improve access, protect the impartiality of the courts and see that people have the opportunity to be treated roughly equally,” he said.

Among other things, Vickrey is responsible for information services, a major headache in recent years as the judicial system has undertaken an effort to develop an IT system for the courts, computerizing all records on a statewide basis. The price tag of the court case management system (CCMS) has ballooned to nearly $2 billion and in February, State Auditor Elaine Howle accused the AOC of poor project management, including inadequate planning, a failure to analyze whether the system would provide a cost-beneficial solution to the needs of the superior courts and inaccurate cost estimates.

As a result, Assembly members Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, called on Cantil-Sakauye to fire Vickrey. Lowenthal said Vickrey’s departure will give “the chief justice a chance to set a whole new level of responsiveness and accountability which is what we in the legislature have been pushing for.”

The Alliance of California Judges, a group founded in 2009 that favors local court management and reordered financial priorities, is sponsoring AB 1208, the Trial Court Rights Act, to increase local control and give judges more power over their budgets. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles Horan, an alliance director, offered a cautious reaction to Vickrey’s announcement. “The resignation of one individual does not reform make,” Horan said. “It’s about the structure of governance currently in place. It is broken, it needs to be fixed and the alliance has proposed a solution that is working its way through the legislature.”

Others, however, lauded Vickrey’s service.  State Bar Executive Director Joe Dunn called Vickrey “simply the best public entity CEO in the country” and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg credited him for helping “to usher in milestone achievements such as trial court unification and realignment of court funding.”  

Vickrey was appointed by former Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas in 1992, after seven years as the state court administrator for Utah. In that post, he directed the consolidation of all state courts into a single state system. Prior to that, he was the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections and director of the Utah division of youth corrections. He said he and his wife will likely remain in California where their daughter and two grandchildren live.

A court spokesman said the AOC will conduct a nationwide search for Vickrey’s replacement.