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Pushed by state lawmakers, the Judicial Council approved rules Friday aimed at giving the public more information about administrative decisions made by the state’s 58 trial courts. The rules require courts to give notice and accept public input when making “major decisions” affecting court budgets or hours of operation. Major decisions would include opting to close a court facility one day a week to save money. The public must also be looped in, and provided with documentation, when courts award no-bid contracts that exceed $400,000 or 10 percent of the annual budget, whichever is greater. In Santa Clara County, one of the state’s larger trial courts, that would mean no-bid contracts worth more than $9 million. In a prepared statement, Chief Justice Ronald George said Friday’s action “strikes a balance between the public’s needs and the needs of the courts to conduct their business,” adding that it’s “consistent with the judicial branch’s obligation to be accountable to the public for the use of government funds.” But a media lawyer said the rules don’t go far enough. “I am perplexed that the Judicial Council doesn’t seem willing to open its doors to the same extent as the other branches of government,” said Duffy Carolan, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine who has filed suits over trial court financial records. The new rule “is just too wishy-washy and would allow the trial courts to maintain secrecy over decisions that are important to the public,” Carolan said. “While it’s somewhat a step in the right direction, especially with the production of documents used in the decision-making process, it’s still a long way to the type of access that we are entitled to from other branches of government.” The rules were required under legislation sponsored by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, and signed by Gov. Gray Davis before he left office. The law was pushed by unions representing 16,500 California trial court employees who want more information about court finances for use in contract negotiations. Union officials have said public access to budget data will insure that courts aren’t remodeling court buildings and judges’ chambers at the same time workers are being laid off. Senate Judiciary Committee counsel Gloria Ochoa said the law, and the new rules, mean “the public will know what’s going on with the court’s budget and how the courts are coping with the budget cuts.” The judicial branch has long enjoyed an exemption from the public notice and public access requirements that govern the work of the other two branches. But until 1997, trial court finances were handled by county governments in public view. With the Judicial Council and the state Administrative Office of the Courts now responsible for court funding, less information is available. The Judicial Council had lobbied against efforts last year to strip the Brown Act of its judicial branch exclusion. But Judicial Council spokeswoman Lynn Holton said the rules passed Friday at a meeting in Los Angeles enjoyed widespread support within the judiciary and were approved by the presiding judges and court executive advisory committees. However, a few judges, including five from Contra Costa County, expressed opposition when the rules were circulated for comment. Judge Joyce Cram, for example, wrote that no judge “who may stand for election, would risk writing down a controversial idea that, with brainstorming, might be exceptionally good public policy, when that simple act would make the idea a public document that could be used politically to oppose a judge for re-election.” Another judge, Diana B. Smith, said there was a rumor that a state senator had threatened to exempt trial courts from the Brown Act if they didn’t adopt access rules. If the rumor is true, she wrote to council members, “then I think it is time for the independent judicial branch to stand up to those threats, tell them no and utter the time tested phrase, ‘So sue me.’” The rules don’t take effect until Jan. 1, but one court executive said she’s already complying with them. “Every time I have updates on the budget, I go out to staff and I explain it,” Santa Clara CEO Kiri Torre, who wrote in support of the rules, said Friday. “It’s so important for them to understand what they are facing.”

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