(CN) - California's Judicial Council voted Tuesday to allow central office bureaucrats to work at home one day a week. The unanimous vote came over the strong objections of judges deeply involved in the effort to reform the big and powerful bureaucracy atop the state's trial courts.
Judge Charles Wachob, who headed a group of judges that spent a year investigating
the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the council was missing the forest for the trees.
"I think it is important to remember for a moment what sort of got this issue here -- because there was a perception of the telecommute policy being either abused or misused or liberally used. It was a headline grabber. And it was not a good headline for the judicial branch," said Wachob.
"Some of the discussion here has focused on the peculiarities or features of the proposed policy as opposed to the underlying focus -- whether or not telecommuting policy advances the mission of the judicial branch and advances the mission of the AOC -- and to that, I haven't heard a very good justification," said the judge.
The options before the council were three: get rid of telecommuting altogether, allow it only under special circumstances, or allow telecommuting one day a week.
In the days leading up to the vote, Judge Maryanne Gilliard from Sacramento said the options before the council were skewed towards a vote for option three. "That option," she said, "gives AOC management carte blanche over telecommuting."
The council voted unanimously for option three on Tuesday afternoon, but said it was a pilot program that would be revisited in a year.
AOC Director Steven Jahr told the council of his conversion on the issue.
"My goal is to err on the side of stringency," said Jahr.
He added that, coming from the trial courts where he worked as a judge in Shasta County in Northern California, he was used to seeing court workers come to court. "My initial surmise is it can't make it more productive," he said, "but degrades the quality of work."
But after conversations with friends in the private sector and some research, Jahr said he changed his mind.
He added that he did not want his words to seem harsh towards the administrative office employees. "What I have said may sound a bit harsh and it may seem perhaps suspicious of our employees," he said. "I don't mean it to seem so."
In the private sector, Yahoo's new president made news last week in reversing that company's permissive use of telecommuting and required all employees to come in to work at Yahoo. Similarly, Google strongly discourages telecommuting.
"It is disappointing, but not surprising," said retired Judge Charles Horan in Los Angeles, "that the Council ignored the arguments of Judge Wachob, Chair of the SEC Committee, who wisely urged the abandonment of AOC telecommuting in light of past abuses, which included an employee telecommuting from Switzerland, and one AOC division with 40% of its staff routinely telecommuting."
"Despite Judge Wachob's correct observation that Judge Jahr failed to convincingly make the case for the need or efficacy of telecommuting by AOC employees," said Horan, "the Council fell into their tried-and-true policy of giving free rein to the AOC."
Horan and Gilliard are members of the Alliance of California Judges, a group of judges who have pushed for reform of the administrative office, criticizing its privileges, arrogance and waste.
But they were joined in their comments by the head of the longstanding California Judges Association, who pointed out that trial court workers don't have the option of telecommuting.
"I think we have to remember that the branch includes more than AOC employees and one of the things I have seen when I traveled -- and I've been to 14 different courts- and at everyone of those courts, I have heard from staff that they feel the cuts and the affect on the branch hasn't been felt by the AOC," said Judge Allan Hardcastle of Sonoma County, president of the CJA.
"When you talk about employee morale, you are setting up a different policy for another part of the branch," said Hardcastle. "That needs to be considered. Trial court employees don't have that option. My clerk can't telecommute despite the fact that that is very convenient for her."
Hardcastle is a nonvoting member of the council.
Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento, who is head of the committee representing trial court presiding judges in the state, also urged against allowing any telecommuting. She faulted the report provided to the council by Jahr and his staff.
"The report we have before us does not establish the true need for a telecommute policy, other than establishing that it would be a good tool for employee morale, and I'm not sure we have a retention or recruitment problem within the AOC," said Earl. "It does not address whether or not there's a fiscal benefit to allowing telecommuting."
Earl is also a nonvoting member of the council.
Wachob, from his position as head of the Strategic Evaluation Committee reform committee, blasted the arguments from Jahr and those on the council who said telecommuting was important to keep talented personnel and to help employee morale.
"It has been mentioned as a justification for telecommuting as a tool for retention of employees," he said. "Right now in this market, I think that the retention of employees is not difficult. I'm sure there are a lot of laid off trial court employees who would love to apply for jobs here."
Wachob then pointed out that in the education division of the AOC, 17 percent of workers were telecommuters. In its Legal Services division, 11 out of 15 were working from home. The AOC's Center for Children and Families had 27 telecommuters out of 68 employees.
"That is a hair under 40% of that office that is telecommuting at the current time," Wachob concluded. "I think what is going on is actually liberal and unnecessary to advancing the mission of the AOC."
In the multi-year campaign to reform the bureaucracy, trial judges have said the highly paid officials in the administrative office gave themselves raises and perks while the workers in the trial courts were furloughed, frozen and fired. The last two state budgets and the one coming in June have resulted in hundred of layoffs of court employees.
"Every court here in the state has lost employees," Wachob urged the council. "My court has gone from 108 employees in 2009 to 97 last week. If you were to put a headline in there and have the court employees read it, 'AOC discusses again liberal telecommute policy,' it will not go over very well and I have not seen a principal, analysis for why the AOC employees should be given a benefit essentially that does not exist for the customers that the AOC is serving."
Wachob is also a nonvoting member of the council.
The voting members, on the other hand, thought they should not interfere with the administrative office.
Plumas Presiding Judge Ira Kaufman said, "We can't get involved in the day-to-day operation of AOC. The next argument would be should AOC buy blue pens or black pens? "
Judge Mary Ann O'Malley said, "I have many good friends in the public sector who telecommute. They are wonderful, intelligent women who are raising families and who are doing an excellent job."
Justice Douglas Miller, also a voting member, said he was very concerned at first that Jahr's recommendation was too similar to the old policy, but is now convinced that it is different.
"I have to trust him and I have to trust the staff," said Miller.
From Los Angeles, Horan noted the many assurances from council members that the recommendations of Wachob's investigating committee would be pursued as though it were their Bible. An overwhelming majority of California judges urged in online comments
for the prompt enforcement of the recommendations from Wachob's committee.
Horan said, "Apparently the promise that the SEC report would be 'their Bible' really meant the Council would ignore it -- and its Chairman -- when convenient for the AOC."