State audit slams California court administration

After years of criticizing the lack of accountability and transparency in the operation of California’s courts, SEIU was vindicated and validated last week when the state auditor released its review of the Judicial Council and its bureaucratic arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) that run the courts.

The auditor’s 90-page report concluded that the AOC used “questionable compensation and business practices,” losing tens of millions of dollars spending lavishly on staff salaries, benefits and consultants while local courts’ budgets were slashed.

“The AOC’s financial malfeasance caused courtrooms to be closed, legal services to be widely curtailed and the public’s Constitutional right to justice to be violated on a wholesale basis,” said Debbi Pearson, president of the Alameda County Court chapter of SEIU 1021 and a clerk at the Fremont Hall of Justice. “And then there’s the layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts court workers have suffered. The devastation wrought by this corruption continues to plague the state’s judicial system.”

In their regular lobbying trips to Sacramento, SEIU court workers—armed with refined talking points and personal stories of the tragedies they’d seen caused by the cuts the AOC imposed on trial courts—stalked the halls of the Capitol, hammering at the documented waste, fraud and abuse of the bloated bureaucracy. Along with their media savvy and the Alliance of California Judges, a group of dissident justices who brought respectability to the criticisms, they smeared the AOC “brand” so badly they officially renamed themselves the staff of the Judicial Council, hiding behind the judges black robes.

That set the stage for Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a former SEIU member, to get approval from the legislature for the audit.

FINDINGS

Among the audit’s findings:

• The Judicial Council did not adequately oversee the AOC in managing the judicial branch budget, which allowed the AOC to engage in questionable compensation and business practices.
• The AOC Provides its staff with generous salaries and benefits—the AOC pays eight of its nine office directors more than the governor and many other high-ranking executive branch officials receive.
• The AOC Employs over 70 contractors and temporary employees and could save about $7.2 million per year by using state employees in comparable positions.
• The AOC maintains a fleet of 66 vehicles without requiring its offices to justify the need
• The AOC made about $386 million in payments over the last four years on behalf of trial courts using funds appropriated to them but could have paid a portion of those payments from its own funds.
• The AOC has sole autonomy in deciding how to spend certain judicial branch funds due to the lack of Judicial Council’s involvement in the budgeting process.
• The AOC has few policies, procedures, or controls in place to ensure funds are appropriately used and spent and, unlike the executive branch, is not required to undergo an annual independent financial audit.
• Although it provides services to the courts, the AOC has never comprehensively surveyed the courts to identify the needs of the courts and ensure that services it provides are useful.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The audit concluded with a number of recommendations. These included:

• The Judicial Council should adopt procedures that require a regular and thorough review of the AOC’s compensation practices. This review should include comparisons to comparable executive branch salaries.
• To decrease its expenses, the AOC should conduct a cost-benefit analysis for using a temporary worker, contractor, or consultant instead of a state employee, and for maintaining its pool of vehicles.
• Once the AOC has identified savings related to its compensation and business practices, the Legislature should consider ways to transfer this savings to the trial courts.
• To determine the cost to the State of providing support to the trial courts, the Legislature should amend various provisions of state law to clearly define the difference between local assistance expenditures and state operations expenditures.
• The Judicial Council should create a separate advisory body, or amend a current committee’s responsibilities and composition, to review the AOC’s state operations and local assistance expenditures in detail to ensure that they are justified and prudent. This advisory body should be staffed with public and judicial branch finance experts.
• To ensure that it spends funds appropriately, the AOC should develop and implement controls to govern how its staff can spend judicial branch funds and develop written fiscal policies and procedures as the rules of court require.
• To bring more transparency to the AOC’s spending activities and to ensure that the AOC spends funds prudently, the Legislature should require an annual independent financial audit of the AOC. This audit should include examining the appropriateness of the AOC’s spending of any local assistance funds.
• To increase transparency, the Judicial Council should conduct a more thorough review of the AOC’s implementation of the directives that resulted from the evaluation committee’s recommendations by more closely scrutinizing the AOC’s actions.
• The AOC should conduct a comprehensive survey of the courts on a regular basis—at least every five years—to ensure the services it provides align with their responses and reevaluate any services identified as being of limited value or need.
• To justify its budget and staffing levels, the AOC should conduct the steps in CalHR’s workforce planning model in the appropriate order, including establishing a mission and creating a strategic plan, determining the services it should provide to achieve the plan’s goals, making future staffing changes based on CalHR’s model, and developing and using performance measures to evaluate the effectiveness of this effort.
• To ensure that it provides services to the trial courts as efficiently as possible, the Judicial Council should explore implementing a fee-for-service model for selected services.

The scathing audit follows another study of the AOC’s procedures by the Strategic Evaluation Committee (established by the Judicial Council) in 2012. That report, among many other things, blamed the AOC for wasting more than a half a billion dollars on a boondoggle database project, the California Case Management System (CCMS), that never worked and that was eventually abandoned.

Chief Justice Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who leads the Judicial Council, responded to the audit the same way she did to the SEC’s report—establishing a committee to study and consider the recommendations. Part of the audit’s complaints is that the AOC makes it very difficult to track what progress has been made in implementing those recommendations, furthering the ongoing criticism of its lack of transparency.

But Assembly member Jones-Sawyer is not waiting for the Judicial Council to review and fix itself. He said he will propose legislation to implement the audit’s recommendations in the upcoming budget process.

Governor Jerry Brown noted the audit’s criticisms in his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015-16. In that proposal the Governor increased funding for the state’s trial courts by $179.5 million dollars, but gave no extra money to any other parts of the judiciary such as the AOC, Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal of Habeas Corpus center, admonishing those organizations to better manage the money they now get.

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