With a crucial vote looming Monday, a conflict that has shaken California's judiciary reaches a critical stage when the Assembly considers legislation that would strip control of most of the court system's purse strings from a central bureaucracy and turn it over to the Legislature and local trial judges.
The yearlong battle over control of the court system's $3 billion budget reached a boiling point this week as Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye began a campaign to kill the legislation sponsored by Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, the Assembly's ranking Democrat.
The Assembly must vote on Monday, otherwise the legislation will die for at least the remainder of this year.
Calderon's bill, backed by labor groups and a splinter organization of the state's judges, would largely scrap a 15-year-old state law that centralized court supervision and budget authority among California's 58 trial courts.
The struggle for power over local court budgets could shape how judges deal with everything from how they pay for legal services for the poor to setting filing fees for lawsuits for years to come.
The legislation exposes a rare public rift within California's sprawling judiciary, which has been rife with infighting over how hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts are being spread through the nation's largest state court system.
The primary target of critics of the current system has been the Administrative Office of the
The Bay Area's trial courts are an example of the division.
The presiding judges of 44 of the trial courts signed onto a letter this month opposing the legislation, but there was a mix in the Bay Area.
Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties signed the letter, but Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco did not. The latter counties are among those forced to shrink staff dramatically and shorten public hours at clerk's offices to close budget gaps.
In an interview this week with the Mercury News editorial board, Cantil-Sakauye warned that Calderon's legislation would be a disaster for most trial courts, producing unfair results for many counties and injecting politics into funding for the judiciary. She noted that Los Angeles Superior Court, which backs the change, would be able to veto important statewide legal programs with scant support from other counties.
"What we lose is uniformity," the chief justice said. "We abdicate decision making about the policies of the judicial branch, the nonpolitical branch, to the Legislature."
Calderon, however, said this week the legislation is needed to rein in the power of the administrative office, which the Mercury News reported two years ago has expanded greatly while the rest of the system has been cut.
Calderon called the agency the "tail that wags the dog," saying the Legislature can allocate the money to the trial courts directly.
"There is huge division in the courts and it won't go away if the bill dies," Calderon said.
Although Cantil-Sakauye downplayed such division, there are splits.
Richard Loftus, Santa Clara County's presiding judge, strongly opposes the legislation, saying it sends the system backward and could jeopardize a new family courthouse project.
But neighboring San Mateo County's presiding judge, Beth Freeman, said her court supports the shift to give local judges more say in how money is divided. The Judicial Council and administrative office, she said, make statewide decisions on funding that can be disconnected to the needs of individual courts such as San Mateo's.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marianne Gilliard, one of the leaders of the Alliance of California Judges, a group supporting Calderon's bill, said change is needed because the bureaucracy is "skimming" money from the trial courts for statewide programs such as a billion-dollar technology upgrade.
But Cantil-Sakauye, while conceding "not everything is perfect," said it would damage the judiciary to hand over so much power to the Legislature.
"All we do is divvy up cuts, we don't divvy up largesse," she said.
As for the discontent among some judges and court employees' unions, she added:
"I dare anyone to show me a public entity (after four years of budget cuts) where the employees or the stakeholders are happy."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.