Three years ago a veritable judicial ruckus erupted when a draft piece of legislation that appeared to give the Judicial Council authority to appoint presiding judges and court executives was discovered in the Capitol.
The fracas over the never-introduced bill, authored by someone in the judiciary who is still unidentified, never really died down. In fact, it’s become a touchstone for judges who see the document as evidence of a power-hungry Administrative Office of the Courts hell-bent on centralization.
An email that surfaced last week may only add fuel to that fire. It’s a June 16, 2009 missive from Donna Hershkowitz, assistant director of the AOC’s Sacramento lobbying shop, passing along proposed Department of Finance judicial budget language and the AOC’s response to a half-dozen Capitol staffers. It’s the first document made public linking a specific AOC executive to the controversial draft.
“… I’m forwarding the language finance sent,“ Hershkowitz wrote. “The AOC made revisions to the language to provide necessary technical assistance to make the language work.”
The revisions she refers amend Government Code Section 77001 to read, “The Judicial Council shall adopt rules, policies, or directives, which shall provide, consistent with statute … means of selecting presiding judges, assistant presiding judges, executive officers or court administrators, clerks of court, and jury commissioners.”
Contacted last week, Hershkowitz and the AOC’s chief lobbyist, Curtis Child, declined to say who authorized the draft language. They also say, as they did three years ago, that no one in the judiciary endorsed the language, which they insist was drafted to fix structural and wording problems in the Department of Finance’s bill. (A Finance spokesman three years ago said his department never asked for the amendments). And even if the bill had been enacted, they say, the changes would have had “no substantive effect” on local courts’ ability to select their own presiding judges and other court officers.
"No one had any intent to put together any language secretly that would have allowed the Judicial Council to appoint presiding judges," Child said.
Suspicious judges aren’t buying the explanations.
“The proposal speaks for itself,” said Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a director of the Alliance of California Judges. “It was a blatant and sneaky attempt to eliminate the statutory requirement for ‘a decentralized system of trial court management.‘”
The answers also did little to soothe Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who in an email called the revelation of the AOC’s draft language three years ago “the event that caused me to lose all faith in the AOC and the Judicial Council.”
Ito has been among the most vocal judges demanding to know who authorized the draft. The judge said he plans to continue pressing the issue.
“The [lobbyists'] refusal to identify the author begs the question, ‘What else are they hiding?’” Ito wrote. “I will be attending the CJA conference in Monterey in October for the specific purpose of asking the chief [justice] these questions in the annual Ask The Chief session that closes the conference.”