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A years-long battle over the direction of the California court system, pitting the San Francisco-based state court bureaucracy against rebel judges and court employee unions, took another tack Wednesday.

The system's critics, led by the Alliance of California Judges, scored a win when the Joint Legislative Audit Committee directed State Auditor Elaine Howle to look into how
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Judicial Council she chairs and the Administrative Office of the Courts are spending money.

The Alliance, paired with court employee unions, has claimed that trial courts are being starved for funds and have been forced to shut down courtrooms and furlough employees while money was wasted on an inoperative computer system and lavish salaries and fringe benefits for AOC employees.

The battle has been waged within the Judicial Council, in the Legislature and in the media, culminating in a request by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, for a comprehensive management audit that is expected to take six to seven months.

"I don't want anecdotes anymore," Jones-Sawyer, a member of the audit committee, said. "I want answers."

The unanimous committee vote for the audit essentially rejected a plea from Steven Jahr, the AOC's top executive, representing the chief justice, for it to be pared down and/or delayed.

Jahr said that Cantil-Sakauye and the Judicial Council had already undertaken extensive studies of AOC staffing by an outside consulting firm and faced a financial audit by the state Department of Finance and that the staff had been "considerably...downsized" — a contention that critics dispute.

Members of the Alliance, including its president, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White, and union representatives said it was vital to resolve conflicting accounts over spending priorities.

The state cut financing for courts when it faced severe budget deficits, and while some of the money has been restored, trial judges complain that financing from the AOC has been inadequate.

PHOTO: California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye answers questions from The Bee's Editorial Board at the offices of The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento on Jan. 14, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton



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