California justices get CHP chauffeurs

jortiz@sacbee.comNovember 24, 2013 

During the work week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard drives from home to the courthouse basement on I Street, parks her SUV and rides up the public elevator sometimes used by accused criminals headed to her courtroom.

Meanwhile, justices who work four blocks away in the ornate chambers of Sacramento’s 3rd District Court of Appeal have another option for getting to work: a free ride from an armed CHP officer.

The service is provided under the broad terms of an agreement between the Administrative Office of the Courts, which acts as the business arm of California’s judicial branch, and the California Highway Patrol.

Superior courts, the part of the judicial branch with the most intimate public contact, don’t provide armed drivers for judges.

The difference is a source of irritation for some Superior Court judges, who have periodically raised the issue for years.

Some complain about appellate judges they know who have used CHP drivers for work commutes, airport pickups or to chauffeur them to social functions. Meanwhile, they say, their lower-court colleagues drive themselves, catch cabs or hop shuttles.

Their argument isn’t that Superior Court justices should have law enforcement drivers. Instead, they say that the appellate courts are wasting public money on a perk not needed to protect judges’ lives.

“I believe that unless there is a credible and immediate security threat, that all justices, be they on the Supreme Court or the courts of appeal, should drive themselves to and from work, and they should drive themselves to and from meetings,” said San Diego Superior Court Judge Runston “Tony” Maino.

Cathal Conneely, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, dismissed complaints about the CHP travel security as a “bit of a table tennis match” with the Alliance of California Judges, a dissident group of about 500 judges who have long criticized the courts’ administration.

Maino and Gilliard belong to the group, which formed in 2009 to fight county courthouse furloughs and to draw attention to the case management computer project that burned through $500 million before the court administration abandoned it last year.

“About every six months, somebody raises this CHP issue,” Conneely said. “I can’t really comment on accusations or allegations. But my experience is that it’s used for security purposes.”

The CHP won’t say which judges use the service, or how often. The Bee in October asked for any public records, reports or statistics that would shed light on why appellate court justices need armed drivers.

The department said it did not have data compiled for threats or crimes against justices. It declined The Bee’s request for reports or other documents as security information outside the bounds of the state public records law.

“Have there been threats? Yes,” CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said. “Have we investigated threats? Yes. Do we discuss them? We don’t talk about them.”

The differences in the levels of court security reflect variations in the way the three levels of the judicial branch operate.

Each of the state’s 58 counties has a trial court, also known as the Superior Court, with more than 2,000 judges statewide. By law, each trial court negotiates its own security contract with local county sheriffs or marshals.

Trial court decisions that are challenged go to the appellate courts for review. The appellate courts are split into six geographic districts that employ a total 105 justices. The seven-member state Supreme Court, based in San Francisco, is the arbiter of disputed appellate court decisions.

By law, the California Supreme Court and the appellate courts must contract security services with the CHP, which took over the duty in 1995 when it absorbed the old state police department.

As the public touch point with the judicial system, millions of people at all stations of society, from lawyers to the lawless, come through the Superior Courts’ metal detectors each year.

Judges say threats do occur, but they aren’t convinced drivers are necessary.

Security measures are in place within the courthouses. Sacramento Superior Court, for example, will spend up to $26 million on security in fiscal 2013-14.

The money includes salary and benefits for 110 deputies under terms negotiated between the county sheriff and the court’s presiding judge. It does not call for deputies to provide driving services for judges, said Sacramento’s Chief Deputy of the Court Erik Maness.

Appellate courts operate differently. Justices hear and decide cases in panels of three. They are not in the news as often as their lower-court colleagues. The galleries in appellate court chambers aren’t nearly as full with onlookers as those in trial courts.

All that makes security for appellate courts “a little different” because those accused of crimes are not in the courthouse, said Larry Raaf, the chief marshal in charge of Oregon’s appellate court security.

“In the appellate courts, it’s basically two attorneys arguing a case,” Raaf said.

He said his office provides “a small amount” of armed drivers for Oregon appellate court justices, but declined to elaborate.

According to documents acquired by The Bee through a Public Records Act request, the current 51/2-year agreement for Supreme Court and appellate courts security will cost taxpayers up to $21.7 million by the time it expires in November 2014.

The contract requires CHP officers to provide bailiff services, courthouse and grounds security, “miscellaneous services,” “protective services details” and “court security for unplanned miscellaneous assignments.” The agreement doesn’t define the boundaries of those last three items.

Conneely said the contract includes transportation “to and from business events” by request, although justices also drive themselves or carpool.

In keeping with the contract’s terms, the CHP dedicates 25 sworn officers at an average cost of roughly $288,000 per month to cover their combined salary and benefits. Other officers can be called in for “as needed duty” and earn a minimum four hours of overtime.

When an assignment involves driving, the courts reimburse the CHP at a rate of 84 cents per mile, according to nine months of invoices reviewed by The Bee covering October 2012 through June 2013.

CHP officers during that period drove a total 168,030 miles on court business, for which their department was reimbursed about $140,000.

The invoices don’t detail how many of those miles went to giving rides to appellate court or Supreme Court justices, how far or how often they traveled with an armed escort or the nature of the trips. The figures also include trips officers made between court facilities during their workdays, Clader said.

Vehicle logs would probably reveal that information, but the department deems it too sensitive for public disclosure.

Conneely, the spokesman for the state court’s administrative office, said trial courts could include travel security in their local contracts if they wanted it.

“All of this is open for negotiations,” Conneely said.

While that’s true, Gilliard said, “the fact that local courts aren’t entering into these agreements should give the public some comfort that, at least at the local level, their money isn’t being wasted.”

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916)321-1043.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service