Guest Column by
Larry Stirling, former State Assemblyman, State Senator
and Superior Court Judge ———————————
“For the first time in our history, the courts of our state have
been ordered to close for budget reasons, something that did
not happen even during the great depression. The judiciary is
in a state of crises.”
— San Mateo Superior Court Judge Mark R. Forcum.
He is right. The courts are in a mess that has been accumulating
for a long time. Judge Forcum is leading a new organization of fellow
jurists called the Alliance of California Judges.
Another group, The California Judges Association, has been in
existence for many decades. The CJA’s staid, passive, and genteel
persona has long served the social needs of the judiciary, but it has
never been a force for judicial reform.
Judge Forcum and his initial 180 members are to be congratulated
for trying to come to the aid of the local judiciary, the legal profession,
and the public that they are trying to serve.
Signing on to this new group is not an easy decision for judges.
Article 6, Section 4 of the State Constitution makes it clear that
while the quality of justice is in the hands of the judiciary, the
quantity (e.g. budget issues) of justice is a legislative decision.
Once the budgetary levels are established, it is up to the judiciary
to manage those resources as efficiently and as effectively as
The legislature reserves the power to bring about major reforms
such as those I carried out at the suggestion of various judges.
For example, California used to have three levels of trial courts.
This resulted in inefficiencies and geographic holes in judicial
services around the state.
Through successful constitutional amendments authored by me
and by Senator Bill Lockyer, the three levels of trial courts were
“unified” into one allowing the presiding judge to allocate resources
to workload hot spots while simultaneously reducing overhead,
variegation in rules and forms, and cultural differences among
In addition I carried laws putting judges back in charge of their court
rooms such as lawyer sanctions, “fast track,” judge voir dire, and
others that brought about dramatically faster civil-case disposition
times: too fast many lawyers complained.
Other laws eyeing efficiency included civil restitution orders by
criminal judges which negated the necessity for victims to file
separate civil suits and the elimination of the troublesome “partition
ratios” in DUI trials which shortened the duration of those plentiful
Instead of banking those savings and applying them to the overdue
project of court automation and facilities improvements, the Judicial
Council, a body mostly hand picked by the chief justice undertook
a campaign of suborning the authority of the local courts and gath-
ering it into the hands of the Judicial Council and its ballooning San
It is reported that while local courts had to leave public-serving posi-
tions vacant, the state Judicial Council accumulated a gang of around
900 high-paid employees, few of whom ever worked in a courtroom.
That bureaucracy became a stultifying presence, providing exactly no
memorable good ideas and blocking a dozen that I personally sent in
for recovering the billion or so dollars in (still) uncollected fines
and child support.
Using revenues that San Diego began collecting after they imple-
mented my idea of using private collection agencies to retrieve
court fines rather than issuing useless arrest warrants, San Diego
aggressively undertook to automate our courts.
The bureaucrats in San Francisco objected to the local initiative
and instead imposed a one-size-fits-all computer system from
the top down. All reports are that it is a billion-dollar fiasco.
Court employees today are routinely required to work overtime
and into lunch hours as a result.
Article 6, Section 6 subparagraph (d) specifically limits the role
of the Council to “…survey judicial business and make recom-
mendations…,” a clear limitation on their authority.
Instead they have acted like a governing body, usurping the plenary
power of the local elected judges by keeping resources for themselves.
While the nest feathering in San Francisco was going on, local hiring
was frozen, the courts were ordered closed one day a month, and
judges were goaded into “volunteering” to give up some of their pay in
spite of the clear language of Article 3, Section 4 of the Constitution.
There are good reasons for that provision. We don’t want our judges
to be “goadable” by anyone, not even the judicial council.
It is true of all bureaucracies. They eventually metastasize, i.e. grow
dramatically at the top.
That is why governments continue to get more expensive but provide
less service. The only thing unique about the court situation is the
blazing speed at which it occurred.
Thus I wish the new Alliance of California Judges every success in
these same goals. But of course, none of this would be necessary if
the legislature correctly provided for the “quantity of justice” that is
their constitutional duty.
This article first appeared in The Daily Transcript and on the San Diego Source, copyright 2010, all rights reserved, any reuse without specific permission is prohibited”.