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It’s been a rough year for the California Judges Association. In January, the group’s first new executive director in more than two decades left abruptly after only seven months on the job, forcing an unexpected replacement search that won’t yield results until summer’s end. Now the group is confronting another emergency — a potential financial crisis because several of the state’s courts, on the precipice of steep budget cuts, are considering forgoing a longtime tradition of paying CJA dues for their judges and commissioners. The association might face the unenviable task of begging individual jurists to reach into their own pockets to fund the group’s mission. Add in the fact that some judges have worries that CJA lobbyist and Acting Executive Director Michael Belote could have a conflict because he also lobbies for associations representing the state’s defense lawyers, and you have an organization ready to circle the wagons. “It has been an extraordinary year,” CJA President Gregory O’Brien Jr. said Wednesday. “Connie Dove had been our executive director for 20 years. We’ve never had a budget crisis in California like the present one. We lost an executive director within the year. “We’re looking forward,” he added, “to smoother sailing.” The CJA is considered important by many because unlike the state’s Judicial Council, which speaks for the judicial branch of government, the CJA speaks for the judges themselves, expressing their concerns — on policy as well as pay and perks — to the Legislature and elsewhere. “We have no other group,” one judge said Wednesday. The group’s search for a replacement for former Executive Director Keenan Casady, who departed on Jan. 31, is well under way with candidates already narrowed to about a half dozen. And while that’s a high priority, Belote and O’Brien have had to focus their attention lately on the budget crisis, hoping that the state’s courts come through with jurists’ dues for the 2003-04 fiscal year. “We have certainly heard from counties who have expressed concern about their ability to continue to pay dues for their judges. It obviously depends on the depth of the cut to the courts in the final budget,” Belote said Wednesday. “We recognize that courts have to make priorities, and, if necessary, we will ask individual judges to retain their memberships on their own.” The tab can run into the thousands of dollars for court systems. Active judges are charged $350 per year to belong to the voluntary association. Retired judges pay $230, while commissioners and referees toss in $265 each. Belote said he has been encouraged by the fact that at least half of the court systems in the state’s 58 counties — including populous counties such as Alameda and San Diego — have already paid the dues. San Francisco, however, has already decided not to pay judges’ and commissioners’ dues for the upcoming fiscal year, and Los Angeles is still up in the air. “We have suspended all travel and dues as part of our budget reduction package,” San Francisco Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens said Wednesday, “until we know what our actual budget deductions are going to be.” The savings is estimated at $36,000, if all dues, including those for clerks and other professionals who have their own associations, are included. Hitchens had no specific figure for jurists, but considering the county has 51 judges and 12 commissioners, the CJA dues would add up to more than $21,000. More worrisome for Belote and O’Brien is Los Angeles, which accounts for almost a third of the state’s 1,600 judges. “Los Angeles has nearly 600 judges, commissioners and referees. Obviously, we would like them to pay,” said O’Brien, himself a superior court judge in L.A.’s downtown courthouse. “I have asked the Los Angeles executive committee to defer a decision until the budget is clarified.” Neither O’Brien nor Belote expect the CJA to shut down if L.A. and the remaining counties’ courts don’t pony up the cash, because they have faith that the judges will come through for the association. “I do believe that judges value their membership in CJA highly,” Belote said, “and I have to believe that if the courts cannot do this, the individual judges would.” The complaint about Belote’s potential conflict of interest for representing both the CJA and the California Defense Counsel as a lobbyist — especially while acting as executive director — came from San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith. In an e-mail to O’Brien, Goldsmith, who was appointed to the court in 1996, expressed concern about an article that Belote had written for Verdict, the defense counsel’s in-house magazine, in which he discussed modifications the defense counsel sought regarding fast-track civil litigation issues. “The defense bar may have agendas that differ from the judiciary,” Goldsmith wrote O’Brien. “How can he serve the judges, and the courts if you will, and a segment of the bar at the same time?” Arguing that Belote had encouraged judges to remain silent and let him handle all things legislative, Goldsmith asked O’Brien whether it wasn’t time to “sever all ties” with Belote. At least one other superior court judge, San Mateo County’s Quentin Kopp, a legislator himself for years, agreed that there could be the appearance of conflict, and said he would raise it when he joins CJA’s board of directors later this year. He also said he believes CJA should be more forceful in getting its issues before the state Legislature. “If CJA does not state positions, then CJA is increasingly irrelevant,” Kopp said early this week. “An entity which states positions, in my experience, fortifies its standing because the Legislature begins to expect a position.” O’Brien’s defense of Belote, who is not getting paid for his acting executive director role, was uncompromising. He argued that Belote, through his company, California Advocates, has represented CJA since 1975, along with 50 other clients of all types. “On the single occasion in the past 27 years that California Advocates has advised CJA of a conflicting legislative position with another of its clients,” O’Brien wrote in a response to Goldsmith, “the CJA executive board determined that the bill was of such minor consequence that CJA would not take a position.” The CJA president also pointed out Belote’s policy of staying loyal to the client he has served longest if a conflict arises. “Since his firm has represented CJA far longer than it has represented [the defense counsel], it would advocate CJA’s position in the event of a conflict,” O’Brien wrote. Both Dennis Howell, president of the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California and Nevada, and Robert Harrison, president of the Association of Defense Counsel of Southern California, confirmed that fact Wednesday. “At the very outset,” said Harrison, a partner in San Diego’s Neil, Dymott, Perkins, Brown and Frank, “it was made clear to us by him that in the event any actual conflict ever did, in fact, materialize, that his allegiance would be to the judges’ association.” Belote said his job as a contract lobbyist requires him to be sensitive to conflicts. “It’s hard to imagine any contract lobbyist who represents a variety of associations or businesses of never having a potential conflict,” he said. “So you have to design an approach in the case of a conflict. If we can’t resolve the issue to the satisfaction of both, we side with the older client.” O’Brien’s response might have settled the matter for Judge Goldsmith. “He demonstrated that he took to heart and considered what I said,” Goldsmith said Wednesday. “I just wanted to raise the issue.” Even so, Belote said he intends to address the issue at a board of directors meeting today, just to make sure no others have problems. O’Brien, calling Belote “very diplomatic,” “extremely circumspect” and a man of “tremendous integrity,” will be in Belote’s corner. The concept of conflict, he said, “is a misperception, probably based on an incomplete understanding of what Mike’s history with CJA is, and the understanding as to his role as executive director.” The real issues, O’Brien insisted, are getting a new executive director and making sure the bills get paid.

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