Judge Steve White, Sacramento Superior Court
Judge Steve White, Sacramento Superior Court (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SACRAMENTO ­— A bipartisan legislative panel on Wednesday unanimously authorized a wide-ranging audit of the judiciary’s administrative and spending practices, handing the Alliance of California Judges and their court labor allies a political victory.

For months, the Alliance and labor groups have lobbied lawmakers for an investigation into judicial branch finances, claiming the Judicial Council and Administrative Office of the Courts have not suffered the same levels of layoffs and cutbacks endured by trial courts in recent years.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the committee overseeing the judiciary’s budget, said Wednesday that the branch could have received more budget money last year but for “preconceived notions about the courts, [the] Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts, including that they are overstaffed, underperforming, hiding funds and overspending.”

“I do not want anecdotes anymore,” Jones-Sawyer told the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. “I want answers. I want those answers from an independent source.”

The audit, as requested by the assemblyman, will consider: whether the council is complying with 2012 legislation aimed at funneling more dollars to the trial courts; how the AOC’s staffing size compares with other states’ judicial administrations; whether AOC functions can be trimmed in light of fewer needs from reduced superior court operations; whether the branch’s fund are being spent “in the most effective manner”; and whether the branch has more money it could be sending to trial courts. Notably, the audit will not delve into the branch’s court construction program, which has also been criticized for its enormous costs.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said the review will take six to seven months to complete.

“The only way to restore confidence in the judicial branch is to shine light on the spending priorities of the Judicial Council and AOC, and hold its leaders accountable for prioritizing justice,” Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Steve White said in a prepared statement issued after the committee vote. White is president of the Alliance of California Judges.

While not opposing the audit outright, branch leaders pleaded with legislators to restrict its scope. Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Jahr said the branch recently executed a $788,000 contract with a private firm to scrutinize job classifications and salary levels within the AOC. The state Department of Finance is also scheduled to review the AOC’s finances starting in August, he said.

“There are criticisms that continue to surface relative to an agency, which has been considerably reformed and downsized,” Jahr told the committee. “We are prepared to cooperate in any and all respects. We only seek to avoid duplication and the costs and workload issues that attend to it.”

Arthur Scotland, the former presiding justice of the Third District Court of Appeal, went further, arguing that the audit is entirely unnecessary because the chief justice-appointed Strategic Evaluation Committee already completed a review of branch operations in 2012.

“The intent behind this is an honorable one, but I would suggest you consider that this would be an expenditure of a lot of money that could be better used by reinstating some of the funds that have been taken in draconian cuts from the judiciary,” Scotland said.

The committee approved the audit request without discussion on a 12-0 vote.

Contact the reporter at cmiller@alm.com.