Call it the War of the Robes.
Sweeping budget cuts in trial courts across California, coupled with mounting frustration with the state's much-maligned court bureaucracy, have exposed an unprecedented public rift in the normally tranquil fraternity of more than 2,000 judges. The division has handed new Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye a rebellion to quell in her first months in office, as well as legislative proposals now gaining momentum that are pitting trial courts against each other up and down California.
"It has made judges choose sides," an exasperated Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview this week. "I'd rather see our energies aimed at fixing our own problems."
As the judicial tension escalates, one casualty may be a statewide technology upgrade for the courts that has ballooned in cost to nearly $2 billion, prompting an outcry from many judges who consider it an ill-conceived boondoggle that should be scrapped to help pay for basic court needs. The fallout also has fueled a move to reduce the powers of the state's judicial leadership to control the purse strings of local county courts.
The strife in the state's judicial branch has been building for several years, particularly since the state Judicial Council, which sets policy for all California courts, two summers ago ordered all courts to close one day per month to save money -- an unprecedented move that infuriated many judges who argued that such a decision should be left to the local level. Cantil-Sakauye has vowed to avoid that step in the current round of budget slashing, but the issue has lingered.
The court closures spawned the Alliance of California Judges, a rebel group separate from the state's established California Judges Association. And the new group targeted two issues: the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which is the San Francisco-based court bureaucracy and the technology upgrade, which has been pushed by the AOC.
As this newspaper reported two years ago, the AOC, as the bureaucracy is known, has doubled its budget and workforce at a time when the rest of the court system has had to cut back, including a projected $200 million hit to court coffers this year. The AOC has become a favorite target because it is an emblem of reforms enacted more than a decade ago designed to centralize court oversight and finances in the state's 58 local courts, moving from county-funded trial courts to state funding.
All these factors have combined to cause the judicial unrest.
"I do think that there is very substantial resentment at virtually all levels of the courts," said Conrad Rushing, presiding justice of the San Jose-based 6th District Court of Appeal and not a member of the alliance.
In a survey last month, the California Judges Association revealed the extent of the discontent. A majority of the 877 judges who responded expressed dissatisfaction with Judicial Council oversight of the AOC and court affairs, as well as plans to push forward with the technology overhaul despite a state audit that found major problems with its "scope and direction."
Cantil-Sakauye, while taking those results "seriously," noted that many judges did not participate in the survey, suggesting the concerns may be overstated. But that has not held off legislation, backed by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, that would remove some of the central powers of the council and AOC to govern local trial courts.
A watered-down version of Calderon's bill, which has heavy backing from the alliance and Los Angeles Superior Court's judges, was approved last week by the assembly's judiciary committee. Among other things, the legislation could make it tough for the council to proceed with the upgrade, designed to link all of the state's court information systems.
"What is driving this legislation and driving trial courts to speak up in majority numbers is they are tired of the AOC taking money that would otherwise go to them," Calderon said in an interview after the committee vote.
Cantil-Sakauye calls the bill "disrespectful to the branch" and "destabilizing." Trial judges have lined up for and against the legislation, which has taken on almost symbolic importance -- most judges agree it would not dramatically alter the status quo.
Santa Clara County's judges, for example, are among the strongest opponents of Calderon's bill, and are generally supportive of both the AOC and the tech upgrade. But neighboring San Mateo County's judges sent a letter endorsing the legislation.
Beth Freeman, San Mateo County's presiding judge, said her court's vote is a message for more local autonomy, "a more direct say in how our courts are managed."
Brian Walsh, Santa Clara's assistant presiding judge, counters that the legislative effort undercuts years of reform aimed at eliminating what was once considered the chaos of 58 different courts doing things 58 different ways. "To me," he said, "this is going backward."
The alliance of judges, however, is growing in numbers and arguing to limit the powers of the Judicial Council, which is often heavily influenced by the chief justice; previously that was Ronald George, who became one of the state's most powerful figures in that role, and now it is Cantil-Sakauye. With a summer of budget cuts on the table, some judges want to see change.
"(The legislation) is an important first step in the process to democratize the judicial branch," said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marianne Gilliard, an alliance leader.
All this back-and-forth among judges who spend their days resolving conflict has Cantil-Sakauye, now in her fifth month as chief, wondering where her honeymoon went. She has urged judges to give her time to study the issues, saying, "I need to know what's in the cupboard."
But she acknowledges the challenges are inevitable in the current climate.
"With an institution of 2,000 judges and 17,000 court employees, there is always a level of discontent," Cantil-Sakauye said.
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236 408-286-0236