California's chief justice loses round over Judicial Council power
The state’s top judge lost a political battle Monday when the state Assembly voted to shift key budget decisions from the state Judicial Council that she heads to local trial courts, some of which have complained about the panel’s handling of money.
The legislation, which next goes to the Senate for consideration, was vigorously opposed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who is also the chairwoman of the Judicial Council. The council said the bill is an "inappropriate intrusion into the fundamental governance of the judicial branch."
But AB 1208 was supported by a dissident group known as the Alliance of California Judges, which said too much power has been centralized with the statewide court bureaucracy to the detriment of local court operations.
The measure by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) would give local trial courts power to decide how to spend their share of funding to pay for court operations. Calderon said his measure is needed because some courtrooms have had to close in the face of budget cuts imposed by the Judicial Council at the same time that the panel diverted more than $70 million to a problem-plagued computer modernization program that has gone over budget.
"That $70 million would have been enough to keep the courts open, but the courts shut down," Calderon said during a long floor debate before the Assembly voted 41 to 23 to approve the bill.
Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) said the bill is a "distraction" from the real problem of finding adequate funding to keep courts operating and would jeopardize statewide programs overseen by the Judicial Council, including one providing interpreters for victims of domestic violence.
"We’re on the verge of a constitutional crisis in our state," Feuer said. "That crisis is upon us because our courts are so severely underfunded."
--Patrick McGreevy, reporting from Sacramento
Photograph: Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye during a California Supreme Court session last year. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)