(CN) - A bill on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk would restrict courts' ability to outsource jobs to contractors, after a fierce lobbying battle between judges saying the bill crosses the line into their turf and union reps arguing that the judiciary should follow the same rules as the rest of California government.
The bill, AB 556
, says courts can hire private contractors only if it can be demonstrated that the switch would save money, among other conditions.
"In our opinion this bill is an overreach, not only into our discretion but into good business practices to reduce costs at a time when we have less funding," Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento said in an interview.
From the labor point of view, contracting simply transfers public funds into private hands. "What you're doing is exchanging wages and benefits for employees for a for-profit company," said Michelle Castro with the union that represents many court workers. "The courts aren't going to pay less money."
Introduced by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), AB 566 establishes standards for private contracting by the courts that are similar to those in place for community colleges, public libraries and school districts in California.
"When we moved to state funding of our courts they were no longer part of the county system, and many of these good government laws were not yet applied to the courts," said Wieckowski. "Over the last few years the legislature has systematically moved to reinstate such laws that provide accountability and transparency to the trial court system."
In its language, the bill conditions private contracts on a demonstration of savings.
"The trial court shall clearly demonstrate that the contract will result in actual overall cost savings to the trial court for the duration of the entire contract as compared with the trial court's actual costs of providing the same services," it says.
In addition, "The contract shall not be approved if, in light of the services provided by trial courts and the special nature of the judicial function, it would be inconsistent with the public interest to have the services covered by the contract performed by a private entity."
The bill requires each court to report to the Legislature's Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the chairs of both the Senate and Assembly judiciary committees on whether the contract resulted in court employee firings and whether their work is being replaced by contractors.
It passed with big majorities out of the judiciary committees for both houses in June, passed with almost majorities of almost two-thirds on both house floors this month, and moved to the governor's desk late Wednesday.
Senator Noreen Evans (D- Santa Rosa) who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for the bill both in her committee and on the floor. Evans also sits on the rule-making body for the courts, the Judicial Council, and regularly supports the judiciary's position on issues before her committee.
"I am not unsympathetic to the issues that are raised by the Judicial Council," Evans said at the June hearing on AB 566. She did not set out her reasons for voting in favor of the bill that passed her committee on a 5-2 vote.
In the negotiations leading up the bill's passage, said the SEIU's Castro, the unions allowed a number of amendments but would not agree to a proposed change that created "a major loophole that would allow a private contractor to open and maintain a private court. The Legislature would not accept that, nor would we, because we don't think we should have a private court."
On the other side of the fierce campaign around the bill, Judge Earl in Sacramento attacked the bill's provisions, saying many are unnecessary. "The burden that this places upon us in terms of data management, audits and reporting we think is unnecessary. Courts are already subject to reporting requirements and disclosure requirements."
She said the bill's effects are also too broad and would cover, for example, family law mediators who work under contracts.
"The governor and Legislature are telling us to be more efficient, but they're telling us you can't do it this way," said Earl. "It puts us in somewhat of a Catch-22."
She added that the court administrative office lobbyists had been in discussion with Wieckowski's staff but were frozen out late in the process. "The latest round of amendments had no input form the trial courts. They know we're opposed to this but there's nothing we can do at this point to convince them."
In an email Thursday morning, Wieckowski explained the impetus for the bill.
He said it came from the firing of the Placer County court's entire court reporting staff and replacement with private contractors.
The court executive office in Placer is Jake Chatters who also helped promote a bill advanced by the Administrative Office of the Courts that would have required the press and public to pay $10 to look at a public file. That bill was killed in budget negotiations earlier this summer.
In a letter opposing Wieckowski's bill restricting private contracts, Chatters defended his court's actions.
"If it had not been this decision, the court would have laid off additional clerk's office and courtroom staff, resulting in direct impacts on access to justice," wrote Chatters. He said the private contracts resulted in $600,000 in savings.
Wieckowski answered that the court employees had agreed to reduce their wages and benefits to the level of the private contract, but Chatters went ahead and fired them anyway.
"Given the apparent lack of savings and the sensitive nature of making the official record, I question whether this contract was actually in the public's best interest," said the assembly member. "My bill would help ensure that future contracts not only actually save money for the courts, but also are, most importantly, in the public's interest."
He added, "Quite frankly, the courts are significantly overstating the costs associated with this bill."
The courts' administrative office argues otherwise.
An analysis submitted by the judiciary's lobbying arm, a division with the Administrative Office of the Courts, estimates the new law will cost courts $20-$30 million. That position is supported by letters
from courts in Butte, Shasta, Siskiyou, Inyo, Tuolumne, Sutter, Marin, Napa, Solano, Sacramento, Fresno, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz, Ventura, Tulare, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego.
"If courts have no flexibility in this area, additional layoffs and furlough days will result with the passage of this legislation," wrote Presiding Judge Paul Beeman from Solano.
"Our ability to contract for personal services is critical to our ability to get the job done," wrote Presiding Judge Gary Hoff in Fresno.
"If enacted, AB 566 would lead to increased costs and, given the court's severe funding constraints, could further diminish access to the court," wrote Presiding Judge David Wesley in Los Angeles.
After several years of deep budget cuts, courts in California have laid off hundreds of court workers, an onerous undertaking that has put them at odds with the California Court Reporters Association and the Service Employees International Union.
"Nobody knows more than SEIU members how bad the cuts have been," said Castro.
She said Placer County court reporters had offered a 32 percent wage cut, higher pension contributions and for two reporters to retire early. "The court did not even consider the reporters' offer," Castro said.
"There is a lot of good public policy in this bill that they're not talking about," she added. "We think this is a good government, transparency requirement which is long due for the trial courts."
Of her opponents, she said, "I think they're absolutely posturing. Every employer once faced with this bill had the same reaction, the school district and community colleges did, the libraries did as well. Guess what? It didn't cripple school districts, it didn't shut down school districts. They managed."
Now the bill's fate lies with Governor Brown.
"This is a huge cost enhancement to the branch, but it's hard to predict what this governor's going to do," said Christina Volkers, the head clerk in Sacramento. "Labor is the one pushing the governor. The courts are good stewards of public funds. I believe this does the opposite of any good policy -- forcing us to spend more by hiring employees instead of being able to contract out. This is so beyond what would be reasonable public policy."
In urging the governor's signature, Wieckowski focused on the albatross that still hangs around the neck of the court administrative office, a failed $500 million effort to create a computer software system for the courts.
"The court computer fiasco where the Judicial Council wasted a half a billion dollars of taxpayers' funds on a failed computer system developed by a for-profit company showed very clearly that the judicial branch needs accountability too, like all branches of government, to ensure the taxpayers' dollars are being used efficiently," he wrote.
"If the courts are going to contract out critical functions," Wieckowski concluded, "we must have proper oversight in place or we could all pay the cost of another multi-million dollar debacle."