An Assembly budget subcommittee voted unanimously Wednesday to block expansion of a statewide court case management system that has become the focal point of a months-long political war between the state's judicial leadership and some rebel judges.
The latter -- backed by the politically powerful Service Employees International Union -- have complained that millions of dollars are being wasted on the computer system while local courts are being compelled to curtail their operations and lay off employees as state financing of courts is reduced.
The budget subcommittee's action bolsters the Assembly's position in a conflict with the state Senate over court management. The Assembly has passed legislation, Assembly Bill 1208, that the rebel Alliance of California Judges sponsored to give local judges more power over distribution of operational funds.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the state Judicial Council and heads the Administrative Office of the Courts, has publicly complained that the legislation violates judicial independence, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has declared that the bill will be held in his house without a vote.
Steinberg, however, is under pressure from the SEIU, which represents court employees facing layoffs and is a major source of campaign money for Democrats. Wednesday's action makes the computer system financing a potential bargaining chip in the inter-Capitol maneuvering over the legislation.
So far, legislators were told, the Administrative Office of the Courts has spent $556.5 million on the system but it's been deployed in only a few counties. Even so, Auditor Elaine Howle pointed out, the AOC certified that the system is complete, thereby triggering a limited warranty period from the contractor that could leave the state holding the financial bag if problems crop up later.
Judges themselves are divided over the efficacy of the system, some professing that it lightens their workloads, while others saying it is unusable. In recent weeks, the chief justice and her allies have backed off their previous intent to install it in every county and indicated that they'd give local judges more leeway.