Judicial agency is bureaucracy run amok

by Robin Casey
Published in the North County Times

California taxpayers have a discerning nose for the smell of wasteful spending, unaccountable bureaucracy and self-dealing on the taxpayers’ dime, as well we should. We have enough experience with all of the above. As both a public employee and a taxpayer, I have a firsthand understanding of the problem.

I work in a court, and courts are effectively controlled by a central state bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, an agency that has virtually no oversight or accountability to the public and should become the poster child for bureaucratic bloat and government waste.

The Administrative Office of the Courts is spending billions of dollars in taxpayer money on grandiose construction projects, lavish junkets, an outsized staff, gold-plated managerial perks and a computer software upgrade that’s still not completed and is expected to cost $2 billion before it’s done—eight times greater than initially budgeted.

At the same time, the public and the average court worker are stuck with cuts, closures and layoffs that are eating up hours, days and even months of our lives. In some counties, it now takes a year and a half to process an uncontested divorce. This is unheard of and unacceptable. Businesses, families, children and anyone who relies on the courts are paying the price for the managerial follies and misplaced priorities of this bureaucracy.

Court reporters, clerks and other front-line workers who keep local trial courts running have joined a group of outspoken judges to break the silence about outrageous abuses in the judicial system and to restore public trust in the courts.

Assembly Bill 1208 is the necessary first step to reform. Simple and straightforward, it says that funding allocated by the Legislature for the trial courts must go to trial courts, not to this agency or its special projects. It’s a no-brainer. But the bill is viewed as a threat to business as usual for the Administrative Office of the Courts, which has dispatched lobbyists to halt the bill ahead of a Jan. 31 deadline.

And by the way, the fact that this judicial office has a team of staffers lobbying for the agency’s political agenda instead of for justice should be a red flag: The Administrative Office of the Courts is a central state bureaucracy run amok.

In fact, the massive growth of this agency stands in contrast to virtually every other state government entity, which has pared back spending in this crisis. While a shortfall in state revenues has driven overall state spending back to pre-2005 levels, the office’s budget has more than doubled over the last five years. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office reports that the number of agency employees has more than tripled since 1997, even as the overall state workforce shrank.

AB 1208 restores balance to our judicial system, putting spending decisions back where they belong —- with our local courts. It’s a first step to straightening out the mess the Administrative Office of the Courts has made of our court funding system, putting justice back at the top of the judiciary’s to-do list.

Editor’s note: AB 1208 passed in the Assembly on Monday, Jan. 30, and has been ordered to the Senate.

ROBIN CASEY is a court reporter in San Diego.

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