I'm sure you will all be pleased to know that a bunch of state judicial bureaucrats just got a 3.5 percent raise while Kern County has closed down one of our outlying courts entirely, is preparing to shut another on all but a single day of the week, and continues to have to cut back hours that clerks can take filings or even talk to the public on the phone.

Yup, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy too.

California's judicial branch has taken hit after financial hit from the state budget.

That's a problem.

But even worse, the courts' own administrator, aptly known as the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), seems hell bent on spending what little money the Legislature has carved out for local courts on, well, administrative claptrap.

It's been a years-long problem that only recently received a withering eye from the Legislature as reports have uncovered unbelievable waste within the AOC.

Still, California's Chief Justice recently approved 3.5 percent raises for hundreds of AOC, appellate and Supreme Court employees.

In the world of government funding, the total is chump change really, only about $1 million.

But it's the principle, said Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe, who also works as the executive director of the Alliance of California Judges.

The Alliance has struggled to shed light on how the AOC's spending has affected the public's right to access its court system.

"We've lost 2,500 jobs and had to close 80 courtrooms throughout the state," Lampe said. "Yet the oversight staff in San Francisco gets a pay raise.

"It sends the wrong message."

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye authorized the pay raises July 3, less than a full week after the governor relented to give the judiciary an extra $63 million this fiscal year. That money was specifically to be spent keeping local courts open, according to an Aug. 23 article in The Recorder, a publication that focuses on legal happenings in California.

"It cannot be used for raises, it cannot be used for construction or infrastructure projects," Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, was quoted by The Recorder as having said in June. "It can only be used to keep the courts open and provide access to justice."

The Judicial Council, which oversees the AOC, has defended the raises as not really raises at all. They are "step increases," for employees advancing from one level to another.

Besides, the money doesn't come out of the same pot as trial court funding, the Council said.

I hate it when government agencies try and tell us a duck isn't a duck.

More jingle in your paycheck is a raise, plain and simple. And these raises were discretionary, by the way, not required by any contract.

That the Judicial Council used its discretion to fatten the wallets of bureaucrats rather than put that money toward providing as much public access to the courts as possible is telling, not to mention disturbing.

Kern County has fared better than its sister counties in finding ways to tighten the belt without too much public impact, until now.

The Kern court system, which operates several courts in outlying cities, has had its budget whacked by $9.7 million, or 27 percent of its base funding, since 2008, according to Kern's court administrator Terry McNally.

Costs were cut through a number of voluntary early retirement programs, hour reductions and by simply not filling open positions, McNally said.

But the cuts went deeper this year.

As of June 10, the Lake Isabella court was closed (see sidebox for more info). And starting Sept. 9, the Taft court will only be open on Thursdays to hear local traffic infractions, small claims and some civil cases.

All of this means it's going to take longer for cases to be heard, it's going to be harder to file cases and more difficult to just get basic information.

McNally did say he's hoping to use Kern's share of the extra $63 million from the Legislature this year to increase services.

But don't get too excited.

"Unfortunately this funding falls well short of the cumulative cuts that have piled up over the last five years so the impact will be very modest," he said.

Meanwhile, the AOC has 68 people in its "center for judiciary education," Judge Lampe said.

"The judges teach those classes for free," he said. "What are those 68 people doing?"

He also noted the District Attorney's association, with 4,000 members, has two people administering its continuing education program.

The AOC also still has 156 people in its information technology office.

It still has that many people, Lampe said, even after the bungled and hugely expensive computer case management system was killed. (This computer system, which was supposed to link courts up and down the state to share case information, cost taxpayers $500 million before it was deemed a failure in 2012.)

"What are those 156 people doing?" Lampe wanted to know.

And while the AOC has reduced staff since the 2011-2012 fiscal year, its budget has increased by $30 million.


"No one ever goes back and reevaluates programs," Lampe said. "It's 'once funded, always funded.'"

The Alliance of California Judges has estimated there is as much as $150 million languishing in failed or unnecessary AOC programs that could instead be used by trial courts, Lampe said.

The Alliance is seeking an audit of the AOC.

Now, that's the first reasonable thing I've heard in connection with this agency.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com