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MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

January, 2007

 

Judicial Council Trades Fairness For Power And Politics
By Barbara Kauffman

The California Judicial Council is the governing body of the California courts, and is directed by the California Constitution to provide "policy" guidelines to the courts. The Judicial Council performs its functions with the support of its staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts (the "AOC"). The Judicial Council has been chaired since 1996 by Chief Justice Ron George of the California Supreme Court, who has proudly taken a great deal of credit for the policy direction our courts have taken.
The online Merriam Webster definitions of "policy" are as follows:

1 a : prudence or wisdom in the management of affairs b : management or procedure based primarily on material interest

2 a : a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions b : a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body.

The Judicial Council would have the public believe that it has interpreted the word "policy" as set forth in lofty definitions 1a, 2a, and 2b. Sadly, it appears from a June 2005 report of objectives of the California trial courts and AOC projects that the most apt and crass definition for the "policy" being handed down by the Judicial Council is found in definition 1b: "management or procedure based primarily on material interest."

A June 22, 2005 report issued by Praxis Consulting for the Judicial Council reveals although the Judicial Council claims in its periodic strategic plans that "Access, Fairness and Diversity" are "Goal I" for the California courts, in fact, equal justice, fairness and diversity are at the bottom of the list of the judicial branch objectives. In 2005, just 6.6 of the total 1,038 trial court objectives fell in the Diversity/Culturally Appropriate Services categories (less than 1%), and just 4.4 of the total 1,038 trial court objectives fell in the Equal Justice/Fairness category (less than one-half of 1%.) Further, the Judicial Council, through its staff agency (the AOC) was involved in 54 projects. Just 2 of those projects (4%) fall into the Access, Fairness and Diversity categories. Those two projects are defined as addressing "Access to Justice" and "Public Access to Court Information." No mention is made of fairness or diversity.

What does this mean? It means that from the top (Chief Justice Ron George) of California's judicial system on down, there has been a pronounced absence of attention to ensuring equal justice, fairness and diversity in California courts. It means that rather than focusing on objectives and projects falling into the category of the Judicial Council's stated "Goal I: Access Fairness and Diversity", in practice the California courts and AOC have been and are focusing on myriad other objectives and goals, including, among others, consolidation of the municipal and superior courts; technological improvements; court outreach and public education designed to increase "public understanding" of and support for the courts (read: public relations); education of court staff; increasing independence of the courts from the counties; increased state funding of the courts; transfer of ownership of county court facilities to the state; appointment of more judges; and higher salaries for judges.

Chief Justice Ron George is extraordinarily proud of his efforts over the years. He is quietly and effectively building a very powerful judicial empire which is subject to alarmingly little oversight-all in the name of preserving "judicial independence".

According to the April 2006 "Fact Sheet" about the California judicial branch available on the California Court website, the California court system is the largest in the nation, with more than 2,000 judicial officers, 19,000 court employees, and more than 8,000,000 cases. According to a January 2005 lecture given by Justice George at New York University, it has a $2.5 billion budget with built-in cost of living increases. In the last 10 years Chief Justice George has consolidated the courts, obtained increased and secure state funding, and developed a wonderfully effective public relations/lobbying "routine" complete with press releases; public relations consultants; regular meetings with the governor and his staff; and annual "State of the Judiciary" speeches delivered to the Legislature followed by a reception hosted by the Judicial Council. All of these efforts dramatically increase the power of the judiciary. Unfortunately, it appears to be largely unchecked power. Perhaps intentionally so.

All the judges, technology, public relations, self-help centers, fancy court facilities, and funding in the world are meaningless if the courts aren't fair. To address this problem the California Constitution has provided for an oversight body to watch over California's judiciary -namely the Commission on Judicial Performance ("CJP"). The CJP is the sole state agency charged specifically with investigating complaints about California judges. It is supposed to be the "watchdog" panel ensuring that the judges and commissioners don't abuse the massive "independence" and power they have. The CJP deals with censure, removal, retirement or private admonishment of judges and commissioners for misconduct. However, although our California Constitution gives great power to the CJP in monitoring, disciplining and removing wayward judges, without adequate funding it obviously cannot perform its constitutionally mandated job.

Interestingly, while Chief Justice George and the judicial branch enjoy an ever-increasing $2.5 billion budget, a trip to the California Commission on Judicial Performance website reveals that the CJP had its funding cut several years ago. It currently has a budget of $4.08 million. Budget cuts have resulted in a significant reduction in CJP staff and expenditures, thereby inevitably inhibiting the ability to investigate and act upon complaints about judges as required by our California Constitution. Further, actions of the CJP are subject to review by the California Supreme Court and Chief Justice George, who to date has shown little or no interest in monitoring or remedying poor judicial performance.

The sad fact is that the architects of the judicial empire being built in California are obviously not interested in ensuring equal justice, fairness, and diversity in the California courts. They are not interested in oversight, by themselves or others. They are interested in politics, power, funding, strength in numbers, and "independence" from everyone.

That wasn't what our founders fought for. They recognized that power corrupts, and absolute power absolutely corrupts.

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