Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tiny Pools of Perspiration

The headline smacked me in the face. Despite Money Woes, Judges Train in Luxury. (Daily Journal, August 11, 2009.) A thousand tiny pools of perspiration dampened my forehead. The pools overflowed and the rivulets cascaded down the craggy crevices of my face. (The two preceding sentences appeared in a draft of an opinion I wrote on the issue of retraxit. For some reason my colleagues refused to concur unless I deleted the sentences. So I thought I would use them here.)
I had already made my plane reservation. The next day I was scheduled to leave for the Dolce Hayes Mansion Resort in San Jose to teach a class with Justice Perren at the Judges College. How could I fly to San Jose and teach at a posh resort while the state teeters on the edge of bankruptcy? But it was too late to cancel my ticket without a penalty. When I arrived the next day at the opulent hotel at about 11:30 a.m., I didn’t see any judges. They were all in class diligently pursuing their daily studies from 8:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon to become more proficient in their profession.
My investigation confirmed what the article had acknowledged. The rate was a mere $110 per night which included the use several meeting rooms. Try and get those amenities at Motel 6 for that rate. But during the short one-hour lunch period, the judges told me how the story may have been passed to newspapers. The strands of my thinning hair stood at attention. A few days earlier, a "mole," posing as a judge, had infiltrated the college and “nosed” around asking questions. He pretended to be just another student judge hanging out with the new judges during breaks between classes. One student judge became suspicious when the faux judge said to him, "Someone told a friend of mine that the hearsay rule is dead. Do you think that's true?"
No one was sure whether the uninvited guest was a reporter. Sorry, I just used an out-of-date term. Today they are called “staff writers.” Does that mean they “write” the news rather than report it, or are the two synonymous? Ben Hecht’s play, The Front Page, which opened on Broadway in 1928, was about newspapers and "reporters" in days gone by. The play tells a riveting story about a capital case and the wise-cracking reporters covering the story who worked out of City News Bureau of Chicago. Reporters were cynical and tough-minded. Every detail of a story had to be thoroughly checked. If your mother said she loved you, the rule was, check it out. No doubt the term derived from their mission to accurately report the news. But I digress.
Suppose the "mole," let's call him an investigative journalist, was sued for something scary like defamation or invasion of privacy and wound up in court. I bet he would expect the judge hearing his case to be competent, fair, unbiased, conscientious, knowledgeable, industrious, thorough, scholarly and respectful ‑‑ just some of the traits the JNE Commission considers important in its evaluation of nominees for judicial office.
No doubt these thoughts were not on his mind. He was looking for an exposé. He did not find one. Despite the headline, the Daily Journal article accurately "reported" that the California Rules of Court require new judicial officers to attend the college and the bids were solicited more than a year ago. (See Cal. Rules of Court, rule 10.462.) True, the resort was nice, but the rooms were inexpensive. And the judges worked hard for two weeks learning about evidence, civil and criminal trials, family law, and a multitude of other subjects taught by veteran judges. The newly appointed student judges, like their predecessors who have been attending the college for over four decades, will become the outstanding jurists for which California is well known. They will be highly skilled in their task to decide a multitude of cases for litigants seeking justice.
But the article about the Judges College highlights the concern over expenditures during a budget crisis. Some judges critical of the Administrative Office of the Courts' budget and its decision-making process have voiced their opposition to court closures. They argue that cuts should be made in other quarters, namely, the huge bureaucracy of close to 1,000 employees at the AOC. This, in turn, drew criticism from the Chief Justice who questioned the motivation for their opposition. But it appears that these judges have agreed to take a voluntary pay cut to proportionally match the mandatory cuts for court employees whether the courts are open or closed.
During governmental budget crises, there is no shortage of views about where best to make cuts. Our Legislature was at an impasse for months over the issue. I am sympathetic to the judges who wish to keep the courthouse open at all costs. After all, the courts are here to serve the public. But the same can be said about numerous programs that serve the public that have been discontinued during this unprecedented budget shortfall. Wherever a budget cut is made, there will be a legitimate argument that some other cut should be made instead.
I hope that in the future criticism will be expressed openly and respectfully without insults and invective from either side for those expressing the other point of view. Some judges I interviewed for this column expressed the belief they may suffer repercussions for candidly offering their opinion about budget cuts. They pose the hypothetical that a few judges may not be able to take a voluntary pay cut because of house or medical payments, college tuition for their kids, or other financial concerns. Will their names be published? I hate to say it, but that may happen even if they have never expressed a view in their life. Some staff writer somewhere may just want to publish a list. Oh dear. I didn't give anyone an idea to do this, did I?
I spoke with a number of judges about this column and, out of an abundance of caution, promised not to disclose their names. But they all wanted their names to be mentioned. One outspoken judge said he would take the fall for everyone else. But I decided not to mention any judge's name. I don't even want to mention my own name. This is not because anyone can or will suffer retribution for speaking out on a budget issue. But an open, frank discussion about budget cuts is itself bound to have frightful consequences.
For example, one judge I spoke with suggested that during this credit crunch the Judges College should meet for just one intensive six-day week. That is a great money saving idea. But, oh no, that could mean my class could be cancelled. You don't think that writing this column will result in my class…. Forget you have read this column. Don't talk about it. Anything you remember about it, keep it under your hat. I can feel it. A thousand tiny pools of perspiration are beginning to form on my forehead.

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