Eight of the nine members of the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) are paid more than the governor, a fact that didn’t sit well with the California State Auditor in light of $1.2 billion in cuts imposed on the judiciary since the 2010-11 fiscal year.
In a report (pdf) released this week, the auditor castigated the state Judicial Council, which oversees the judiciary, for lax control of the AOC, its administrative arm. Consequently, the AOC “engaged in about $30 million in questionable compensation and business practices over a four-year period and failed to adequately disclose its expenditures to stakeholders and the public,” Auditor Elaine Howle wrote.
The auditor stepped into a long-running fight between a large number of judges and judicial administrators over policies, priorities and budgetary decisions. The conflict was intemperate even before the economic downturn.
The report also criticized the AOC for failing to comprehensively identify the needs of trial courts for the services it offered them: “On average the courts reported they use only 55 percent of the services that the AOC provides.” The auditor thought that the agency should have used more of its own funds to pay $386 million in trial court expenses instead of using all of the courts’ separate appropriation.
The Alliance of California Judges, a reform group with around 500 members, wasted little time agreeing with the auditor. “The Judicial Council has lost touch with its primary mission of advising the courts, and has instead morphed into an over-bloated bureaucracy that places its own interests ahead of those of the trial courts it was created to serve,” the group said in a statement.
That was probably a better summary of why feelings are hard rather than the uproar over a wasted $30 million that accounts for a miniscule portion of the judicial budget. A more substantive financial disagreement between judges and administrators occurred when a $1-billion computer system meant to link 58 trial courts, law enforcement and the public to a centralized database of information crashed and burned in 2012 after wasting half the money.
Among the wasteful practices the auditor found that will resonate with a public that increasingly sees government as performing badly were: there is no policy for tracking the use of 66 cars in the agency fleet.; three executives employ their cars for personal use 80% of the time; and the agency hires temps, contractors and parttimers when hiring fulltimers would be more cost-effective.
The AOC provides services to the trial courts, appellate courts, the state Supreme Court and other judicial entities. The 300 services to trial courts include accounting and procurement, training to judicial officers and court staff, recruiting court interpreters, supporting local court self-help centers and negotiating labor accords.
The auditor was not optimistic that the Judicial Council would implement its recommendations or reform its practices more broadly without outside intervention. That would be tough to do because of the separation of powers between the judiciary and the Legislature, and might call for some extraordinary action. The audit said:
“If the Judicial Council does not undertake sufficient and timely action in response to our recommendations, it may be desirable to amend the provisions of the California Constitution that prescribe the powers of the Judicial Council so that the reforms we recommend can be implemented.”