Thursday, February 16, 2012

Courts bill would shift power but to whom? Large trial courts would gain influence while Legislature regains the purse strings.

I am quoted in this article in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. 

To hear the two sides tell it, either the sky will fall or the sea will part.

Since the unexpected passage last month of a controversial bill to decentralize control of the state judiciary, Assembly Bill 1208's supporters and opponents have continued to make countering claims about what will happen if it becomes law.

Detractors say the bill would dismantle the statewide administration of justice, letting fickle legislators stampede over judicial branch autonomy. Supporters say it would strip budget decisions from incompetent managers, ensuring trial courts get 100 percent of the money they're due.

The reality of a "decentralized" court system, if passed by the state Senate this year, would fall somewhere in between those claims.

In practice, the bill would fundamentally limit the authority of the policymaking Judicial Council - and its chair, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye - making it more difficult to push through statewide infrastructure projects. But while trial courts could see more money and greater autonomy over their own budgets, the bill would almost certainly keep power centralized by handing the purse strings to Sacramento and granting a larger say to the biggest trial court, Los Angeles County.

Far from truly "decentralized," the judiciary also wouldn't return to the days when there were 58 completely independent trial courts - called "fiefdoms" by some. The "California Rules of Court" that create a uniform system of paper forms and procedural policies will remain in effect. Services like self-help centers and drug courts are unlikely to go by the wayside. And the current scheme for determining how much money each county receives would remain intact.

"The bill would take a lot of the budgetary power away from the Judicial Council, and it would basically be dispersed. And when you take away budgetary power, you take away power," said Jessica Levinson, a government professor at Loyola Law School who has reviewed the current bill's language. "It's intended to a certain extent to cut the legs out from under the Judicial Council."

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