California Continues Judicial Rationing Game, Down About 270 Judges

California seems committed to continuing its judicial rationing shell game, with the state’s policy-setting Judicial Council’s “committee on legislation” voting to support a controversial law allowing the council to move five vacant judgeships from one county to another.

“It’s safe to say that the presiding judges statewide are divided on this issue,” Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, who represents the state’s 58 presiding judges as chair of the council’s Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, told The Courthouse News. He told the legislation committee that he had polled the state’s presiding judges and received some “very vehement” opposition to the idea. “There are a number of competing interests and concerns… the concern is this is a new arena we are stepping into, unprecedented, and it has people nervous.”

You think? California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan in his 2016-17 budget package calls for moving five vacant judicial positions. The governor has been quoted saying that “… this will shift judgeships where the workload is highest without needing to increase the overall number of judges.” And Brown has been emphatic that these vacant judgeships need to be moved before he will agree to fund any new positions.

The CN notes how much of a drop in the judicial justice bucket this is, backgrounding that: “The understanding is that this will involve taking two open positions from Alameda County and three from Santa Clara County, and giving two to Riverside County, two to San Bernardino County and one to Kern County. All three south-state counties are in serious need, though nearly all judges agree that with the state down by about 270 positions every court is in desperate need of more judges.”

Read the CN’s excellent reporting here: CNS – Plan to Reallocate Judgeships Moves Ahead

Most Immigration Judges Can Retire Now If They Want

With a Sept. 30 deadline passed, more than half of the United States 247 immigration judges, staffing 58 courts nationwide, are eligible to retire. This as the nation faces an immigration courts backlog of more than 450,000 cases. The Los Angeles Times offers a truly alarming look at the situation, starting with outlining that some judges – who are not actually federal judges but employees of the Justice Department – preside over thousands of cases.
The LAT also notes that “… the U.S. attorney general appoints immigration judges. Officials have already started ‘an aggressive hiring process,’ said Kathryn Mattingly, an immigration court spokeswoman. They have hired 18 judges, five more will start this fiscal year, and they plan to hire an additional 67, she said. Last fiscal year, about 100 judges were eligible to retire, but only 13 did, she said.” But the paper quotes current judges lamenting how much more difficult working conditions have become.

Court Admin. Salaries Under Fire With Audit

California’s court management blew $30 million over four years on what a state audit is calling “questionable” expenses and salaries. The audit is sure to become an issue as the state heads into budget season with court leadership seeking to replace some $1 billion of recent-years cuts.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

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

The audit was ordered by the state Legislature as part of the back-and-forth with court supporters who seek more funding. Some lawmakers have argued that the court administrators are not taking care of the purse strings. The debate has at least brought a re-branding: the Judicial Council, the policymaking arm of the courts, was previously called the Administrative Office of the Courts, or the AOC.
The Los Angeles Times reflected the tone of how the report is being received, reporting that “… auditors found the administrative office paid eight of its nine office directors more than $179,000 a year, which is higher than the salary for the governor and his top administration staff” and that a manager “… hired three months ago to run the San Francisco-based 800-employee agency, is the top earner, witan annual salary of $227,000. The governor earns $177,000 a year, less than the justices he appoints to serve on the California Supreme Court and less than is earned by some county court administrators.”

Newsweek Notes ‘Civil Gideon’ In Eviction Issue

If 2015 is going to be the “Tipping Point” year for civil Gideon in the United States, then stories like a recent Newsweek report are going to play an important role. Writer Victoria Bekiempis calls the right to council in eviction proceedings “another civil rights movement… quietly gaining momentum.”
Some key points in her report: In New York City, some 90 percent of tenants in housing court don’t have attorneys while about 90 percent of landlords do; about one-third of persons in NYC homeless shelters arrive immediately after an eviction; some 30,000 families were evicted last year; each bed in a New York City homeless shelter costs $36,000 annually, experts say, while it would cost $1,600 to $3,200 to represent a client in housing court.
Bekiempis’ story is the sort of year-starter that gets picked up (like, say, we’re doing now) and includes important resources for anyone interested in how justice gets rationed. For civil Gideon fans, it’s already required reading, and you can find it here: Housing: The Other Civil Rights Movement.

Senator Seeks Cameras In Fed. Courts

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, poised to become Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, is already making increased court transparency a priority. The Des Moines Register reports that the senator “… is again encouraging the U.S. Supreme Court to add cameras in the courtroom.” His encouragement comes in the wake of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts dedicating his year-end “state of the courts” report on technology, but without even mentioning cameras in the courtroom.
“In his year-end report, Chief Justice Roberts rightly promotes how the courts have embraced new technology,” Grassley is quoted as saying in the report from the Associated Press. “Unfortunately, though, the courts have yet to embrace the one technology that the founders would likely have advocated for — cameras in the courtroom. The founders intended for trials to be held in front of all people who wished to attend.”
The senator has introduced legislation to force the courts to allow cameras and says he will do so again. See the story here: Grassley: Put cameras in the Supreme Court


Roberts Promises Supreme Court E-filing

U.S. Chief Justice Robert’s annual “state of the judiciary” report has brought the usual level of yawn, but his comments on court tech did catch some media. A good example is from The Washington Post, which noted that “… there is, in fact, a nugget of newsy news in Roberts’s“2014 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary”: The Supreme Court will bypass the federal judiciary’s somewhat troubled electronic case-filing system in favor of its own, expected to come in 2016. But the chief justice’s accounting is perhaps most useful for what, with a bit of between-the-lines reading, it reveals about why, he admits, ‘the courts will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity.'”
It’s not all that encouraging for anyone hoping the nation’s highest court would become more transparent, especially since issues like cameras in the courtroom seem far, far away.

Magazine Notes High-Stakes Court Cases

Mother Jones magazine is offering a rundown on five states where electing state supreme court justices has become a high-stakes political battle, complete with spending millions of dollars on attack and counter-attack ads. The piece offers some familiar names for anyone who follows the judicial policy wars, like Texas and North Carolina, and some places where you might not have noticed conflict, like Tennessee.
In particular, the magazine notes that Florida, also home to significant fights over the governor’s office and of course a vital presidential swing state, has seen dramatic increases. Florida, says reporter A.J. Vicens,  “… ranked near the bottom of the list between 2000-09 in terms of judicial candidate contributions, with nominees raising just $7,500 during that entire period. But that changed in the 2011-12 cycle, when three Supreme Court judges were up for retention votes, with candidate fundraising coming in at more than $1.5 million and independent spending topping $3.1 million.”
For court watchers, it may be interesting that the increased spending is happening in some states with “retention” models, which are believed to decrease political efforts in the judiciary. In those states, voters can only decide whether or not to keep or dismiss a judge – as opposed to choosing between candidates. California, for example, uses a retention system for its high court, although a huge majority of lower court judges run unopposed.

Brown Appoints Presiding Judges

The MetNews is reporting that Gov. Jerry Brown has named Court of Appeal Justice Frances Rothschild as presiding justice of this Los Angeles Div. One, and proposed three judges of other courts for appointment to other divisions. The website says that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brian M. Hoffstadt will be nominated as associate justice in Div. Two, former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Presiding Judge Lee S. Edmon as presiding justice in Div. Three, and U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins as associate justice in Div. Four. 
Read the report, with background on the newly appointed and their confirmation process, here: Brown Names Rothschild and Edmon Presiding Justices of C.A.

Eight New Judges For L.A. Superior

Sixteen new judges were appointed this week to California superior courts, eight of them in Los Angeles. The Courthouse News reports that the L.A. Superior Court judges are Richard J. Burdge Jr., Rupert A. Byrdsong, David J. Cowan, Brian S. Currey, Sherilyn P. Garnett, Christopher K. Lui, Enrique Monguia and Gustavo N. Sztraicher. Find out more about the judges and their immediate background here.

Budget Advisory Group Holding Thursday Call

The public can listen into the next meeting of California’s Trial Budget Advisory Committee meeting via a conference call, officials announced. The meeting will discuss “ongoing budget issues plaguing the state’s courts,” according to published accounts, and will focus on court interpreter funding and proposed revisions to some tech project allocations. 
The meeting is open to the public via conference call. The meeting will also be audiocast live. More information is available here: Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee – judicial_council.