Dysfunction between California judges reaches crucial point

William Vickery’s announcement that he would retire as the chief administrator of the California judicial system may cool off a red-hot political fight that pits judges against judges.

Officially, Vickery, the top executive at the Administrative Office of the Courts was merely fulfilling a previously made decision to step down. But it occurred as Vickery was receiving big-time heat from rebellious judges, the State Auditor’s Office and legislators over management issues, especially a much-troubled, very costly computer system.

To critics, the California Court Management System is symbolic of efforts by recently retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George to centralize judicial management, bypassing locally elected judges.

Rebel judges created the Alliance of California Judges and are sponsoring legislation that would affirm the right of local courts to manage their affairs. The AOC, under Vickery, has been organizing opposition to Assembly Bill 1208 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier.

When State Auditor Elaine Howle issued a highly critical report on the computer system, it gave the rebels more ammunition.

“AOC has consistently failed to develop accurate cost estimates,” Howle said. “Projected in 2004, the AOC’s earliest available cost estimate for the system was $260 million, an amount that grew substantially to $1.9 billion based on the AOC’s January 2010 estimate. Over the same period, complete deployment to the superior courts has been postponed by seven years, from fiscal year 2008-09 to fiscal year 2015-16.”

After the report was issued, several legislators called for Vickery to resign. Meanwhile, Vickery’s underling who was directly in charge of the computer system fiasco is also retiring.

The computer system was to be George’s crowning legacy, along with a $5 billion courthouse construction project. Both legacies, however, are tarnished by their implementation.

Not only is the computer system way behind schedule and way over cost estimates, but also courthouse construction has been marked by local controversies over siting and allegations that it has been used to whip local judges into line.

George was very combative, dismissing critics as malcontents, while his successor, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, appears more conciliatory.

Assemblyman Calderon said he is willing to delay action on his bill to give Cantil-Sakauye a chance to work out differences with the rebels and “control the massive AOC bureaucracy.”

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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