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State judicial leaders have quietly called a closed-door meeting with key legislators and bar leaders to build support for an ambitious overhaul of California’s court system. An invitation to the meeting, set for Feb. 17 at a San Francisco hotel, was sent to 100 judges and bar representatives in January by Chief Justice Ronald George, court administrator William Vickrey and state Sens. Dick Ackerman and Joe Dunn. The invite, a copy of which was obtained by The Recorder, lays out for discussion proposals on everything from changing the way courts are funded and managed to the length of judges’ terms and the way their salaries are set. Also on the table are changes to the judicial discipline system and a proposal to codify the Supreme Court’s oversight of State Bar admission and discipline. “The issues around Article VI [of the state Constitution] have been around probably for the last 15 years and have been discussed and debated in various forums,” said Vickrey. “We kind of rolled them all up in one discussion and decided what we would do is pull together a representative group of our judicial leaders from across the state so they could all have a discussion about those issues that people have raised.” Vickrey said the meeting is closed to reporters and members of the public so that discussion can be frank. “The goal is � to provide a setting where people can feel comfortable to raise questions and criticize new ideas,” said Vickrey, adding that the meeting isn’t required to be public under state law. “It’s not a business meeting and it’s not a body that has the power to make any decisions.” He said judicial leaders want to gain some consensus on various proposals, then “get input from a broader segment of the court system as well as some representatives from the legal community” and translate the outcomes into legislation that would be carried by Sen. Dunn, a Santa Ana Democrat, or Sen. Ackerman, an Irvine Republican. Any constitutional amendment would have to be placed on the ballot, perhaps as early as 2006. Representatives from two of the organizations invited to the meeting said they would reserve any comment on the topics slated for discussion. “We’re going to participate in the discussion,” said Anthony Williams, director of government affairs for the State Bar of California. “We’re very interested in the proposal and are anxious to work with the chief and the [Administrative Office of the Courts] to build a strong judiciary,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Mize, president of the California Judges Association. “We will be anxious to see the proposals as they flesh out.” Part of the agenda is aimed at insulating judges from political pressures. Among other things, the invitation proposes extending judicial terms from six to 10 years, establishing an independent commission to set judicial salaries and preventing newly appointed appeal court judges from having to appear on the ballot twice within four years. Also up for discussion are proposals to give the Commission on Judicial Performance the power to refer errant judges to mandatory educational or treatment programs or to even suspend them for a period without pay. But judicial leaders are especially intent on cementing into law a budget mechanism that would build annual cost increases into the budget. “The state court system tends to be more vulnerable to the budget process,” said Vickrey. “They’re a small portion of the budget and the courts aren’t an active political animal. They don’t have the same kind of active constituency in the legislature that others do.” The overarching purpose of the amendment, the invitation says, is to “strengthen our ability to protect the stability, neutrality and accountability of our judicial branch and, most important, the public’s access to its courts.” Duffy Carolan, a media lawyer at Davis Wright & Tremaine in San Francisco, said the Feb. 17 gathering may not violate state open-meeting rules. “But arguably it would have to be open to the public under California’s new Sunshine Amendment, which applies equally to the judicial branch,” she said. In any event, Carolan suggested that George reconsider. “It seems ironic to bar the public from a meeting held to discuss, among other things, how the judicial branch can be more accountable to the public,” she said.

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