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.

Judicial Council ‘Open Meetings’ Plan Draws Complaints

It turns out that good news about open committee meetings at the California Judicial Council comes with at least 17 strings attached. That’s how many exceptions there are, including for issues like “consideration of raw data,” that would evade public eyes whenever the judges like.
Reporters and newspaper advocates are among those commenting on the rules, with court officials stressing that this is just an early draft. Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told The Courthouse News that “… this is really open to wide discretion by whoever is on the committee… the exemptions they have created are very, very broad.”
The report also notes that “… the Judicial Council has a history of making decisions in closed-door committees followed by open Judicial Council sessions where the committee decisions are unanimously approved with little or no debate. Trial judges have said the council simply ‘rubber stamps’ the decisions made secretly by the committees.”
There’s more from Court House News here

Courts Contracts Info Denied To Reform Judge

It’s an ongoing issue, but you might think that getting copies of all the current vendor contracts for California courts would be (A) a cure for insomnia and (B) fairly easy. Think again. Because “A” may be true but “B” is proving difficult for a judge who has been critical of the judicial administration, reports the Voice of San Diego website, a non-profit investigative news outlet.
The VofSD reports that “… Kevin McCormick, a trial judge in Sacramento who also heads a court reform-advocacy group called the Alliance of California Judges, asked state court administrators earlier this year for copies of all their current contracts with vendors. He was surprised to hear that they did not have that information available… the courts had literally interpreted [open records act] Rule 10.500 to mean that they did not have to “create” a public record of their contracts — even at the request of a judge.”
Judge McCormick went on to question how such a large system runs without a list of vendor contracts. You can read more about the issue here.

California Courts Monitor ‘Special Report’ Update now on stands and available for download

When we published our printed “Special Report” earlier this year, it detailed a court crisis facing a difficult season. Sometimes, it seemed that the looming cuts, coming after years of cuts, were mostly positioning for the ongoing state budget battle. In addition to our daily online offerings, we promised to update the print report at the end of summer, so that’s what we did, and it is now available in local coffee shops and newsstands or you can download it by clicking here

The takeaway? It was as bad, and sometimes worse, than expected. An environment of fear and insecurity only became more so. And we marveled at the number of people who would talk about courts issues, but only on condition we never name them. Think of that. These are people who are mostly afraid that judges — judges! — will actually punish them for voicing opposition. And some of those fearing retribution are lawyers.

In this Update, we have included more new material than we intended and highlighted one of our judicial profiles in a blatant attempt to show relevancy to a new audience — the national civil courts community. You can access the original here on our website or contact us directly at for a printed copy.

And let us also say Thank You for the warm reception and backroom briefings prompted by our coverage. Our pledge is to get better and that our mistakes will be those of the head, not the heart. 

‘System Failure’ Closes ‘Public’ Court Budget Meeting

State officials are blaming a “systems failure” for loss of an audiocast feed that effectively shut unions and others out of a key budget-allocation meeting this week. The failure took on added impact, union leadership noted, because they had not received timely notice about the meeting and were relying on the audio. While the Administrative Office of the Courts set up a conference line for some of the budget committee members, there were not enough lines for labor officials and even legislative aides who wanted to hear about how court money is being divided.
The Courthouse News quoted Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) saying that  “… we have a vested interest in trial court funding; how the funds get distributed and what purposes they are establishing priorities around,” Michelle Castro with the SEIU said in an interview. “We’re at a very critical juncture in the trial courts. We are going through extreme amounts of cuts on the backs of court workers.”
At issue are deliberations of a special advisory committee for trial court budgets that approved roughly $72 million for programs supporting the trial courts and technology projects. The Courthouse News reported that the “… allocations included $18 million to maintain interim versions of the now-defunct Court Case Management System and the Arizona server that hosts it.” That’s bound to raise eyebrows because the state legislature approved a last-minute $60 million for trail courts with the direction it be used to save jobs and keep courts open – there has been a concern that money might be directly spent on other areas or diverted to replace money that would have otherwise gone for those purposes. 
     “Our big issue is the Legislature said this $60 million was directly supposed to go to making sure the court doors were open. Is that really happening?” said a union official in the Courthouse News story. Read more here.

Closing Of Local Courthouses Amounts To Theft

Closing local courthouses amounts to theft, says the noted left-leaning reporter James Preston Allen, publisher of the San Pedro-based “Random Lengths News” newspaper. To support the claim, he turns to both the state public records law and some old fashioned arithmetic.
Writes Allen: “In April of this year, this newspaper filed a public records request with the Los Angeles Superior Court and found that the total monies collected from fees and fines at both the Avalon and San Pedro courts amounted to over $4.5 million per year. In fact, in fiscal year 2010-11 the total collected was a whopping $4,885,772. It would seem that of this gross amount, someone might figure out how to keep the courthouse doors open. But no, this is not the reality. The reason why the court can’t afford to keep doing business is that out of all these revenues collected, the State of California takes 54 percent, the county takes 37 percent and the cities receive 6 percent. And the court? In 2010-11, the court received a paltry one percent,or $48,857.52.” 
The writer, in his “At Length” column, says that he is “… personally and profoundly amazed by the indifference shown by the business community, most of the Council District 15 neighborhood councils and the legal profession who have all acquiesced to this abridgment of the public’s right to fair and equal access to the law. Not to mention the loss of 50 well paid jobs and requisite traffic to the court that generates business in the area.”
His headline is “Theft of the Courthouse” and you can read it here.