SACRAMENTO — In a blow to the chief justice, the state Assembly on Monday passed AB 1208, the controversial Trial Court Rights Act, by a 42-24 margin.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has barnstormed the state in recent weeks, arguing to newspaper editorial boards and other groups that the bill aimed at curbing the Judicial Council’s spending power is an unfair challenge to judicial independence.
But in the end, the chief justice could not overcome last-minute efforts by the Assembly speaker and the courts’ biggest labor union, Service Employees International Union, to push the bill off the floor.
AB 1208′s sponsor, the Alliance of California Judges, released a statement Monday, calling the bill’s passage “an essential step in the process of judicial reform.”
“We hope that this will now be a new opportunity for the chief justice and the Judicial Council to accept our long-standing request to meet and discuss a fair resolution of the issues,” the Alliance judges wrote.
But Cantil-Sakauye appeared in no mood to offer up olive branches Monday afternoon, saying in a statement that the branch will now work to defeat the bill in the Senate.
“People who know the facts know that this is no victory for Californians, for our state courts or for equal access to justice,” she said.
AB 1208 would shift control of millions of dollars in state funding directly to the trial courts, giving the Judicial Council limited power to divert money for projects like the Court Case Management System, or CCMS. The legislation marks the biggest shift toward court power decentralization since the state took responsibility for trial court funding in 1997.
The bill now moves to the state Senate where it will likely face a much tougher road. Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, is already on record as opposing AB 1208, having voted in December to seek its defeat as a member of the Judicial Council.
“There were some who said I couldn’t get it out of this house,” the bill’s author, Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, said after Monday’s vote. “One day at a time.”
Calderon said he would likely amend AB 1208 as talks surrounding the legislation continue.
“Everyone agrees there is a problem,” he said. “We just need to find what the right answer is.”
AB 1208′s passage followed hours of old-school politicking in the Capitol on the eve of Tuesday’s procedural deadline for moving bills out of the Assembly. Judges and lobbyists for the Judicial Council, trial lawyers, SEIU and defense attorneys marched the hallways Monday morning in search of lawmakers to buttonhole for last-minute votes. One lawmaker said he had spoken to 20 judges on the issue prior to Monday’s vote.
The legislation has split traditional political alliances. The anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association supports AB 1208 while the Chamber of Commerce opposes it. SEIU is one of the bill’s biggest backers, even as the Consumer Attorneys of California worked to defeat it.
Even in the Legislature, where partisan vote blocs are the norm, AB 1208 divided membership in both caucuses. In the final tally, 15 Republicans joined 27 Democrats in voting for the bill.
“This bill is a distraction from the fundamental issues that each one of us should be compelled to address,” said Assembly Judiciary Chairman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles. Feuer cited severe budget cutbacks as the real culprit in the judicial branch’s disharmony.
Bill opponents and supporters alike blasted the Administrative Office of the Courts as a “bloated” bureaucracy that has “mishandled” the development of CCMS.
“It’s too big,” Feuer said of the AOC. “It’s made serious mistakes. But to say this bill is the antidote of this problem would be a serious mistake.”
AB 1208′s future seemed very much in doubt this afternoon after the first roll call resulted in just 32 of the 41 votes needed for passage. The measure was placed “on call,” a procedural move that temporarily sets the bill aside as the author seeks more support.
Over the next hour, Calderon and Assembly Speaker John Perez roamed the Assembly floor, targeting some of the 23 members who had not voted. Meanwhile, judges and lobbyists out in the hallways hit the telephones and visited staff members of nonvoting legislators.
It worked. When the roll was opened again shortly before 3 p.m., 10 previously nonvoting Democrats added their “aye” votes and the bill was passed.
Calderon said he used the time before the last vote to correct “a lot of misunderstanding about the bill.”