Routine Juvenile Court Press Access Seems Doomed

A state appeals court has issued a tentative ruling that it will overturn an open-court decision by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the county’s juvenile court who had decreed that dependency hearings were “presumptively open” to the press. The issue has been highlighted by open-court advocates who argue that state oversight of child custody is of immense public interest.
On the other hand, social worker unions and others have argued that protecting the privacy of children is more important than open courts. For example, they argue, the presumption of an open court means families and attorneys would have to monitor courtrooms to see if media was present. The Los Angeles Times and the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law have filed briefs asking the appeals court to keep the hearings open.
In an L.A. Times report on the pending decision, which is open for more arguments later this month, the children’s institute director, Robert Fellmeth, said, “We fully agree that there are many instances where it’s appropriate to have confidentiality and protect vulnerable children from exposure. Nash’s order allowed that, liberally… what we oppose is the draconian cloak of secrecy that conceals this profound exercise in state parenting.”

‘King George’ Could Have Gone Federal? Historic Implications Abound

Most of our discussion over former Chief Justice Ronald George’s recent memoir “Chief” has focused on his relentless quest for power. But S.F. Gate in the Bay Area has an interesting alternative take, pointing out that many of California’s same-sex marriage rulings might have gone another way if “King George” had accepted a federal judgeship that was offered shortly after he’d accepted an appeal court position.
That move, of course, set up an appointment to the state high court by Gov. Wilson. But S.F. Gate has this bit of insight: “If Wilson had appointed someone else instead of George in 1991, there’s a fair chance that some of the court’s later 4-3 decisions would have turned out differently — such as the May 2008 ruling, written by the chief justice, that legalized same-sex marriage in California. That ruling stayed in effect for less than six months before the voters outlawed same-sex marriage by passing Proposition 8, which ultimately was overturned by the federal courts. But George’s ruling allowed 18,000 gay and lesbian couples to marry…”
There are other milestones, but clearly it’s a take on the Justice George story we’ve not seen. You can see it here.

Chief Justice Favors Transparency She Controls

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

The Courthouse News has some of the better coverage from a year-end press meeting with Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, who still says she favors court transparency despite having led the successful effort to remove open-meeting requirements from legislation. Apparently she supports the rule if judges write it, with TCN reporting that “… while the chief justice lobbied against a bill requiring open meetings by Judicial Council committees, she said she always supported the idea but wanted the judiciary to have control over the language in the rule.”
She explained that: “Because I think there are different considerations with judges who are on the advisory committees that draft the proposals for council to consider. In the process of drafting those proposals and deciding if a proposal should even come to council, judges still in their judicial role speak about substantive issues of law…  we have a concern about the code of judicial ethics and what judges can and cannot say in the process of a heated argument in the development of a proposal versus what they can and should be saying publicly.” 
And of course she noted “… a new long-term fiscal plan for the courts that she hopes will persuade the governor to restore $1 billion in funding to the judicial branch over five years.” Read more here.

Pensions Next Target For Cutbacks?

Courthouse workers and other public employees should take notice of a Detroit judge’s ruling that public employee pensions are just contracts, not really guarantees at all. If that ruling is upheld on appeal, it means that funds like the California Public Employee Pension System are not as protected as many thought. In effect, the judge is saying that federal laws trump state assurances.
The Press-Democrat newspaper in Sonoma County is among those offering analysis of the decision, writing in an editorial that “… to cover soaring retirement costs, which in some places are approaching 50 cents on every payroll dollar, cities and counties in California and across the country have laid off workers and slashed spending on parks, street maintenance and other public services. A handful have filed under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code; others are weighing the possibility”
You already see pensions at issue in the high-profile San Bernardino bankruptcy debate. You also hear whispers that, should public employee pensions be questioned, the issue could be real leverage in the next round of budget negotiations. Read the Press-Democrat editorial, which outlines the issue pretty well, here.

Judicial Pay Hike Continues To Make News

That pay increase for California judges continues to make headlines, especially since the hike will be retroactive back to July 1 and none of the increase was discussed amid decisions to eliminate courthouse jobs. But the raises are virtually mandated by state law, which ties judicial pay increases to the average pay increase received by other state employees.
That same law means the judges could be in line for a 4.5 percent pay increase by the middle of 2015, even if none of the eliminated court jobs are ever reinstated. Even with the state law and the fact that judges have not gotten a pay raise since 2007. Superior Court judges earn $178,789 per yea, and that’s going to $181,292. Justices on the appeals court will get bumped to $207,463, up from $204,599.
The pay increase will also have a cascading effect in San Diego and several other counties, where the pay for members of the county Board of Supervisors is tied to the pay of judges.
There’s a good story about the raises, and ties to county supervisor pay, at the U-T San Diego website here.

Gov. names 8 New L.A. Superior Court Judges

Gov. Brown has named eight new Los Angeles County Superior Court judges among 18 judicial choices statewide, the governor’s office announced. In L.A. County, the new judges are Deborah S. Brazil, Carl H. Moor, Connie R. Quinones, Armen Tamzarian, Sergio C. Tapia, Lee W. Tsao, Frank M. Tavelman and Joel Wallenstein.
Superior Court judgeships pay $181,292 in California. For bios on the L.A. choices, check out The Courthouse News here.

Supreme Court Ranked As Nation’s Most Open

That move last year to post state Supreme Court judges’ financial records online has led to a top national ranking for California, although our “letter grade” was only a C. The Washington, D.C. based Center for Public Integrity awarded 43 sates an F.
Howard Mintz at the Contra Costa Times reported that “… California’s Supreme Court received particularly high marks for making financial information readily available to the public, the result of a move last year by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to require all of the state’s judges to post their financial information online. Some judges around the state had opposed the requirement, but it helped separate California from other less open states.” He also noted that little dust-up involving one justice who voted in favor of Wells Fargo even though she owned “between $100,000 and $1 million” worth of the bank’s stock.
California was also praised for the way it selects supreme court justices, who only face a “recall” election every 12 years as opposed to states that elect judges in head-to-head elections. Read the full report here.

Federal court to video-stream most important cases

The federal appeals court for California and other western states is expanding its Internet video streaming to include important cases heard by the full court, as opposed to lesser cases heard by panels of the full court. The Ninth Circuit, which usually meets in San Francisco and is known for allowing more media access than other courts, will broadcast five cases slated for oral arguments betweenDec. 9 and 11. It is believed that this is the first time a federal appellate court has allowed live broadcast of a proceeding.
“The Ninth Circuit has a long history of using advances in technology to make the court more accessible and transparent,” 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said in a statement. “Video streaming is a way to open the court’s doors even wider so that more people can see and hear what transpires in the courtroom, particularly in regard to some of our most important cases.” 
You can find Associated Press coverage of the decision, via the Mercury News, here.

Fresno: Union Blasts Court-Linked Supervisor Pay Hike

In Fresno County, the same judicial pay increase that raised eyebrows statewide is giving county supervisors more money. That pay hike comes after the supes took a hard line on rank-and-file salaries, and it happens because the county leaders years ago tied their salaries to judicial pay.
Last week, the Judicial Council of California and the state Judges Association sent out a memo to announce a 1.4% judicial pay increase. That same memo noted that a 4.5 percent hike is expected in the next year or so.
The Fresno supervisor raise brought sharp comment from a labor group, with the Fresno Bee newspaper quoting Alysia Bonner, a county employee and Region 4 vice president for SEIU Local 521: “It’s just incredible that they’d take another raise before they’d invest in Fresno… they constantly talk about cutting services and tightening belts, but they don’t have any trouble taking more money for doing less. They are part-time workers. The rest of us work for a living.” The union represents more than 4,000 county workers.
Read the Fresno Bee story by John Ellis here.

Civil Courts Not Even On 2014 Political Radar

Political observers are watching the not-subtle trial balloons for the 2014 political season, and in California’s statewide races the big news is that a former Goldman Sachs Group executive who ran President George W. Bush’s “Troubled Asset Relief Program,” or TARP, is likely to run for governor. It is interesting for civil court observers to note that the political liabilities attributed to Gov. Jerry Brown nearly always cite the prison overcrowding and other issues, but never the civil court cuts that destroyed our neighborhood justice system.
Bloomberg News, a Republican trial-balloon venue if there ever was one, floats it this way: “Neel Kashkari, the former Goldman Sachs (GS) Group Inc. executive chosen by ex-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to help rescue the U.S. banking system, is readying a challenge to California Governor Jerry Brown even as the world’s 10th-largest economy reaches its highest level in more than three decades… Kashkari, 40, who ran the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program under President George W. Bush, has assembled a team of Republican campaign strategists and is talking to potential donors about taking on the 75-year-old Democrat, said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Kashkari.
A quick review of nine other stories about Gov. Brown’s challenge turned up no mention of the court cutbacks or layoffs. If anything, political pundits seem to lump the court issues into the wildly successful effort to balance the state’s budget. Granted, most of those supporting a courts revival are also likely to be Democratic voters, so perhaps they have limited options.
Here’s the Bloomberg story, which has excellent background details on the likely candidate’s divorce and home in Laguna Beach.