By Cheryl Miller
The Recorder
May 29, 2012

SACRAMENTO – In a blistering indictment of the state’s judicial administration, a long-awaited report released Friday night concluded that the Administrative Office of the Courts is over-staffed, dysfunctional and less than forthcoming about sensitive issues.

The Strategic Evaluation Committee, comprised almost entirely of judges, said the AOC has “lost its focus” on serving the trial courts and assumed a more dominant, controlling role in its relationship with California’s 58 superior courts. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye created the committee in March 2011 in response to concerns the AOC had grown too large despite an era of lean budgets.

“Every organization needs to periodically re-examine its mission and its functions and in this case, it doesn’t appear that that was done in a meaningful way for a long time,” the committee’s chairman, Placer County Superior Court Judge Charles Wachob, said Tuesday. “The organization drifted from its essential function of supporting or assisting the courts if the courts request assistance.”

What’s more, AOC officials skewed budget and staffing-level numbers to give the false impression that the administration has suffered as much as trial courts in the economic downturn, the report said. For instance, the AOC reported in February that it had a staff of “more than 750.” In fact, when all of the agency’s contract and temporary workers – some of which had been with the AOC for more than two years — were added in, the actual number climbed to above 1,000, a near-historic level.

“The AOC’s reporting of staffing levels has been misleading, leading to mistrust of the AOC,” the report said. “Disingenuously suggesting that AOC staffing levels have been reduced in response to branch-wide budget and staffing cuts has led to further mistrust and cynicism.”

The committee’s report recommends a major overhaul of the AOC’s “top heavy” structure, which would eventually leave the agency with somewhere between 680 and 780 authorized positions.

The 297-page report will undoubtedly shape the current budget negotiations – Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised spending plan issued earlier this month spared the AOC, but not the trial courts, from direct cuts – as well as impact the search for a new administrative director. Committee members called former Administrative Director of the Courts William Vickrey “a visionary” but criticized the Judicial Council for not providing more oversight of his work.

Critics of the AOC seized on the report as proof of their long-held contention that the administration is bloated and unresponsive to local courts.

“The nearly 300-page report is an A-to-Z indictment of an out of control organization,” directors of the Alliance of California Judges wrote in an email Monday. “It is an absolute ‘must read’ for everyone concerned about the functionality and credibility of our judicial branch.

Jody Patel, who was a regional director for the AOC for five years until her appointment as AOC’s interim administrative director, said she couldn’t “speak for the past administrators” but insisted that “a lot has changed and will continue to change” at the AOC in the coming months.

In a brief conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Cantil-Sakauye called the committee’s work “fabulous” but said the report is “backwards-looking” and does not consider the restructuring and staff reductions now planned.

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