Two weeks after California’s judiciary leaders ordered more transparency in disclosing taxpayer-funded settlements of judicial wrongdoing, most courts have offered the same response: We don’t have anything to report.
Shortly after June 1, The Recorder asked all 58 trial courts, six appellate courts, the state Supreme Court and the Judicial Council for any financial settlement records. The Judicial Council made clear on May 24 that, despite some courts’ initial objections, the documents are not shielded from disclosure by the judicial branch’s records laws.
Two appellate courts—the Second and the Sixth—and more than half of the trial courts had responded by early Friday afternoon that they had no responsive records to release.
One court, however, took a different tack. Alameda County Superior Court unveiled a page on its website Friday that contains links to what court officials said are all “documents reflecting the resolution of claims or litigation—from Jan. 1, 2010, to the present, involving the court, its employees, and/or its judicial officers ”
A court representative declined to say whether any of the documents related to a settlement involving a judge.
The documents, often heavily redacted, cover a wide range of agreements between the court and its employees, including some that include no financial settlements. There are 18 so-called last-chance agreements between court executives and unnamed employees from 2010 that memorialize their suspensions for looking at court files without a valid business reason. There are letters indicating dozens of small payments to settle a dispute over court transcript fees. There are papers documenting voluntary separation agreements and severance packages.
The filings hide employees’ names, the names of their union representatives, dates, attorneys’ and law firms’ names and details about complaints and claims. One 2016 settlement agreement, for instance, reports a $26,660 payment to a court worker. The unnamed recipient—the unredacted parts of the agreement refer to “her”—said that she contends she has been constructively discharged. The court disagrees with that assertion.
“The court [redacted] specifically denies that it or its judicial officers, executives or employees engaged in any form of harassment of [redacted] and vigorously denies any liability for [redacted] claims,” the agreement said. The contract also includes requirements that the employee not sue or talk about terms of the agreement.
The redactions and limited information in the documents makes it unclear if the court ever paid an employee to settle claims of sexual harassment or other misconduct by a judicial officer.
Judiciary leaders acknowledged at the time they amended Rule of Court 10.500 that it may not provide a complete picture of harassment in California courtrooms. Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Marsha Slough, who headed the committee that drafted the rule amendments, said her charge from the chief justice did not allow the group to require more disclosure than it did.
“It may well be appropriate at some point in time in the future for this Judicial Council to address those points of concern,” Slough said in May.