Sacramento State Capitol building on Capitol Way. Credit: Jason Doiy/ Recorder

State lawmakers on Monday pressed the state auditor and the Commission on Judicial Performance to settle their legal fight over access to complaints against judges, saying the dispute is thwarting the Legislature’s oversight and budgeting duties.

Lawmakers in 2016 authorized the first-ever audit of the commission, which investigates claims of judicial misconduct. The review was supposed to cover dozens of items, from how the agency decides to investigate complaints to how its disciplinary process compares to those in other states.

The commission in October 2016 sued to block the audit, arguing that conflicting laws could make records compiled by the auditor improperly subject to public disclosure. The auditor disagrees and has vowed to keep any documents confidential.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge in December sided with the commission. The California Supreme Court last week refused to hear a direct appeal in the case, which now is pending at the First District Court of Appeal. A final disposition could take several years.

“If we have to wait now for a couple of years, I think that’s going to be frustrating for everybody,” Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, said at a subcommittee hearing reviewing the commission’s budget. “If this winds up putting some limits on our ability to perform our oversight ability—if the courts decide that, the courts decide that. But it will not go very well with our constituencies who are asking us to perform this” oversight.

The commission has been assailed in recent years by family law litigants and their advocates, who complain that the agency does not adequately discipline judges. Those complaints, as well as those of judges who argue just the opposite—that the agency is overly hostile to judges—helped spur the audit.

Gregory Dresser, the commission’s director and chief counsel, told the subcommittee that after years of budget cuts and freezes the size of the agency’s staff is 10 percent smaller than it was 20 years ago. The commission is not trying to hide anything, he said, but it “needs certainty that all the records in the hands of the auditor remain confidential.”

Stone said the auditor’s review of the commission’s workload and staffing could give lawmakers “a better understanding of the challenges that you face.”

“My plea is, let’s find a way to resolve this,” Stone said. “As a policy maker I don’t know what to do with all of this yet, and I’m frustrated at having to wait. … Let’s find a way to get there sooner rather than later. That’s what I ask.”

 

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