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Court reform bill shelved for this year

Controversial legislation to scale back the Judicial Council’s hold over the California courts’ purse strings was shelved for this year when author Charles Calderon, Assembly floor majority leader, did not take it up for a vote on the Assembly floor.

The Montebello Democrat told reporters the “caustic” atmosphere surrounding AB1208, the Trial Court Rights Act of 2011, was the main reason he did not bring it up for a floor vote before the deadline to move Assembly bills to the Senate. He did acknowledge, however, that he was concerned about whether he had the votes to get the bill passed. His action makes the measure a two-year bill.

 AB 1208 whipsawed its way through the Assembly judiciary and appropriations committees last month, undergoing such amendments as one to strip the Judicial Council of its ability to allocate many funds authorized by the legislature and instead grant local courts more power over their budgets. Local courts also would have no longer needed Judicial Council approval to transfer funds between functions or programs. Any unspent funds would have remained with the trial courts; currently, local courts need Judicial Council authorization to carry those funds forward from one year to another.

The bill, which grew out of dissatisfaction of some local courts with a centralized and powerful Judicial Council, was essentially gutted before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in early May. Calderon agreed to three amendments, but by a 7-2 vote, one amendment was dropped and another was further revised.

Prior to the Appropriations Committee hearing, however, Calderon reinstated part of the amendment that was rejected in judiciary and he added further restrictions of Judicial Council power, deleting its ability “to adopt a budget and allocate funding for the trial courts.”

The idea of local court control got a boost months ago from the state auditor’s finding that the computerized Court Case Management System (CCMS) was badly managed and millions of dollars over budget. Calderon’s amendments would have required the Judicial Council to obtain written approval of two-thirds of a “proportional representation of all local trial courts” before using any legislatively allocated money “for any statewide information technology or administrative infrastructure program, including existing projects such as the California Case Management System, that was not identified in the annual Budget Act.” That provision would have given big court systems like Los Angeles enormous veto power over CCMS, although the two-thirds requirement was scaled back from the original 75 percent requirement.

When the bill was still scheduled for a floor vote,  Donna Hershkowitz, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts government affairs office, said the Judicial Council remained opposed to 1208. “It’s unusual,” she said, “that provisions that were taken out in a policy committee were shortly thereafter amended back into the bill,” a process she called “definitely not standard.”

As amended, the measure seemed to highlight the needs of individual local courts over statewide judicial branch needs and gave veto power to a very small number of courts, Hershkowitz said. Although no one court accounts for more than one-third of the state’s judges, a combination of two or three courts could veto technological, administrative and infrastructure improvements funded by the Trial Court Trust Fund.

“When we’re talking about the needs of 55 other courts, their need for a statewide automated system and a financial and accounting system, that could all be vetoed by a small number of courts,” she said.

Calderon has long insisted that the legislature is constitutionally required to appropriate funds and says his proposed legislation adheres to that mandate. “The legislature should appropriate money to the Judicial Council,” he said. “If the Judicial Council wants to hold back some of that money for its priorities, it’s got to get the consent of the courts.”

The bill, he added, simply “affects how courts spend money. It attempts to protect trial court budgets while not interfering with management issues.”

The measure was introduced at the urging of the Alliance of California Judges, a group claiming 400 members that believes the balance of power within the state’s judiciary has shifted to the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts to the detriment of local courts. AB 1208, said Kern County Judge David Lampe, a director of the alliance, “does nothing to change the constitutional authority of the courts.”

The alliance was particularly unhappy last year when the Judicial Council ordered court closures as a result of economic austerity at the same time it continued to pump money into CCMS.

The legislation has divided California’s judges, who have lined up for or against the measure. “I feel a bit like I’m in the middle of a family dispute,” said Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D, El Dorado Hills, at last month’s Judiciary Committee hearing. Huber, who voted for the amended measure, said she wasn’t happy with the amendments and was not happy that the bill’s “opponents haven’t addressed the Alliance’s concerns.”

Despite her vote, Huber said she thinks the measure would face defeat in the Senate.