It has never happened before.  The Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil Sakauye, accusing the Speaker of the California Assembly John Perez of lying while a prominent Assembly member compares the chief justice to a rookie legislator who does not understand the process.

A bitter conflict between dissident judges and the leaders of the California Supreme Court has now gone public.  For more than a year, a group of trial court judges called the Alliance of California Judges has been on the attack against the Judicial Council, headed by the chief justice, and its operational arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts, for extravagance and incompetence.  The Alliance contends the Judicial Council is wasting money that should go to local courts, pointing to a billion dollar court computer system the Alliance says does not work.

In 2011, former top court administrator, William Vickery, resigned following reports of lavish spending.  Just last week his successor, interim courts director Robert Overholt also resigned, noting that his position has become “a lightening rod for controversy.”

That controversy was stirred up by a report on San Diego’s Channel 10 last November that Vickery and Overholt “had been spending tax dollars on steaks, martinis and hotel stays” during trips to resorts around the country while the court system was trying to stay afloat amid the state’s deepening budget cuts.

All of this might have remained a tempest in a judicial teapot were it not for Assembly Bill 1208 by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), a measure sponsored by the Alliance and backed by the Service Employees International Union that represents courthouse employees.  The measure strips power from the Judicial Council and reorders spending priorities.

Cantil Sakauye, as head of the Judicial Council, has lobbied strenuously against the measure, including editorial board visits asking for newspaper editorials against the bill.  Apparently she felt she had an assurance that the bill would die on the Assembly floor, but when it came up for a vote on January 30 Assembly Speaker Perez muscled the bill out of his house.

Cantil Sakauye reacted by accusing the Speaker and Assemblyman Calderon of lying to her about the bill. “It’s one thing to lose an argument based on merit; it’s another thing when the facts are not represented,” the Sacramento Bee quoted Cantil Sakauye as telling a group of judges.  “Because of my previous conversations with the Speaker, I thought for the most part that it would go away, because I understood that the bill would be up to each member to vote their conscience, that it wouldn’t be the subject of political maneuvering on the Assembly floor.”

Cantil Sakauye also sent Speaker Perez a list of 16 false statements she claimed were made during the Assembly floor debate.  She contends the Assembly’s efforts to reorder court spending priorities call into question the meaning of separation of powers.  “That line could very well be blurred based on the conduct and the involvement that occurred not only leading up to the bill but how it squeaked out of the Assembly.”  Implicit in this criticism is the notion that the Assembly is trying to steal the Judicial Council’s money.

Speaker Perez refused to comment on passage of the bill, but Assemblyman Calderon blasted back at Cantil Sakauye calling her comments “not appropriate” for a chief justice.  “You hear these kinds of comments from a rookie freshman (in the legislature) who doesn’t understand the process.  I can’t believe she’s that uninformed about how the legislature works, or if she’s trying to raise antagonisms against the legislature,” Calderon told the Sacramento Bee.

He went on, “When you get down in the weeds with the legislature it hurts the credibility of the courts.  If it’s me – a low life legislator – that’s what people expect.  They don’t expect the chief justice to be down there wrestling with them.”

Crucial to the fate of AB 1208 is the role played by SEIU, and there is no doubt its strong support helped muscle the bill through the Democratic controlled Assembly where Speaker Perez is a reliable ally of labor.  The bill is now in the Senate where President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg has indicated it will not move.  But Steinberg too is a reliable labor vote, and if SEIU makes this a “must pass” bill, Democrats may be forced to pass it through the Senate too.

Overlaying all of this is a partisan fact: the legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic and six of the seven sitting Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican governors, some going back more than two decades to Gov. George Deukmejian.

The bill would have a hard time with Gov. Jerry Brown, though.  Governors spend a lot of time going hat in hand to the courts and the Supreme Court recently did Brown a big favor in backing his scheme to kill redevelopment agencies.  He’s not likely to bite the hand that hands down rulings.

But that may not be the end of it.  Chief Justice Cantil Sakauye has accused the Assembly of duplicity; the Alliance has now tasted blood twice by helping oust two top court administrators; and the SEIU is unlikely to back off its insistence that more court resources go to its members (and by implication not to lavish trips and fancy dinners).

The legislature may well have the last laugh; it holds the power of the purse and could easily strip the Judicial Council of its budget and force a reordering of court expenditures.  Assemblyman Calderon is wily legislator, having served many years in both the Assembly and the Senate (his brother is a current State Senator), and he is not likely to take well to being accused of lying and thievery.

This long simmering battle between Cantil Sakauye, dissident judges, and powerful legislators has now exploded into the open.  It is not likely to go away any time soon.