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Bench, bar mull overhaul of state court system

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

California’s judicial branch is moving closer to placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would make significant changes in the court system, including lengthening judges’ terms and changing the way the courts are funded. The goal, according to bench and bar leaders, is to establish the courts as a co-equal branch of government.

Chief Justice Ronald George wants to amend Article VI of the California Constitution and has circulated a series of possible changes among judicial leaders. Although the courts have managed to keep their doors open despite the recent financial crises that have beset the state, “we have never lost sight of the circumstance that our branch’s ability to operate remains fragile — and that we must avail ourselves of every opportunity to provide more stable protection for the public’s access to its courts,” the chief justice told the legislature last month.

He added that the amendments are designed to provide for stable funding for the courts, establish procedures to add new judges on the basis of need, protect the neutrality of judges and minimize politicization of the judicial branch.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Revise and place in the Constitution the current statutory method of calculating base budget increases year-to-year.
  • Give the Administrative Office of the Courts control over all court facilities.
  • Create a standardized procedure to evaluate the need for new judges.
  • Increase judges’ terms from six to 10 years. Judicial elections would be timed to provide voters a sufficient record of service on which to vote.
  • Create a Judicial Salary Commission to oversee judicial salaries.
  • Give the Commission on Judicial Performance the power to mandate treatment or suspend errant judges without pay for 60 days.
  • Expand the Judicial Council’s power to include policy-making in administrative matters and change the way council members are chosen.

The last proposal drew initial reaction from the State Bar Board of Governors at its March meeting about changing the way members of the council are selected — the board would be required to make three nominations for each vacancy and the appointments would be made by the chief justice, rather than the State Bar. The board also suggested that a proposal that gives the Supreme Court “inherent authority over the admission and discipline of attorneys” in California be modified to include the State Bar’s role in those duties.

“The board felt comfortable with the language because it’s a reiteration of decisions previously rendered by the court,” said bar President John Van de Kamp. “But we felt the bar should continue to name lawyer appointments to the Judicial Council.”

The board offered its support for an amendment to Article VI that states, for the first time, what entities are included in the judicial branch: the courts, the Judicial Council, the Commission on Judicial Appointments, the Commission on Judicial Performance, the State Bar and “other entities established by the foregoing or as designated by law.”

At its March 15 board meeting, the 2,600-member California Judges Association offered support for several proposals, including the provision of stable funding, management of court facilities, creation of a Judicial Salary Commission and allowing the Judicial Council to determine the need for new judges. It took no position on increasing judicial terms to 10 years, because according to President Jim Mize, a Sacramento jurist, the move “may have counterproductive or unintended consequences.

“CJA strongly supports efforts to insure judicial independence and to resist the politicization of the judiciary and we were uncertain if extending judges’ terms will advance those interests,” he said.

Once the AOC receives reaction from the bench and bar, Sens. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, and Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, are expected to author legislation that, if approved, eventually would be submitted to the voters, most likely in March 2006.

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