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Agency that runs California courts 'dysfunctional,' report says

The report, ordered by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, could undermine her attempts to roll back budget cuts of about $544 million.

May 30, 2012|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

The agency that runs the California court system has become "dysfunctional" and bloated with high-salaried bureaucrats and requires a major overhaul, according to a report ordered by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

The 300-page report, which will be presented to judicial branch leaders next month, comes as the courts are trying to stave off large budget cuts from Sacramento. Although ordered by Cantil-Sakauye and written by a committee she named, the highly critical evaluation may undermine the chief jurist's efforts to roll back projected budget cuts of about $544 million.

The committee of 11 judges said the Administrative Office of the Courts, the San Francisco-based agency that runs the court system, is overstaffed, "top-heavy" and unwieldy. The office has strayed from its required task of serving the courts and become controlling, deceptive and secretive, the judges said.

"The top-level decision-making process of the AOC became insular, with a top-down management style limiting input from those within the organization," the report said. The judges cited 17 positions with maximum annual salaries at or above $175,000, "numerous positions" with salaries in excess of $100,000 and a staff attorney who was permitted to telecommute from Switzerland.

The problems occurred during the tenure of retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George and retired administrative office Director William Vickrey, the report said. During that time, new committees, rules and programs were established at the behest of the Judicial Council, the courts' governing body headed by the chief justice, the report said. The council failed to keep a close eye on management and bureaucracy as staffing swelled to 1,100, according to the analysis.

The report recommends greater oversight by the Judicial Council, a restructuring of the bureaucracy, regular internal audits, staff cuts and possible relocation of the Administrative Office of the Courts from pricey office space in San Francisco to Sacramento.

Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged that the report contains "hard criticisms" and noted that downsizing and restructuring are already occurring. She said staffing will be down to 860 by June 30 because of ongoing layoffs.

The Alliance of California Judges, a dissenting group that has complained about the court bureaucracy, called the evaluation "an A to Z indictment of an out-of-control organization." The group said the report confirmed what the Alliance has been saying for years: "The AOC is broken at its very core and has been allowed to run itself … for well over a decade."

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