Taking It To The Streets

by Bruce McEwen, September 9, 2010

The judges at the Mendocino County Courts are all getting a paid holiday for Labor Day, but the people who do the actual, physical, skilled labor at the courthouses — the clerks and court reporters — are not getting paid to stay home. This is only one minor violation of the contract the clerks and court reporters have with the court.

Ordinarily, if an employer breaks a contract — a written, signed contact — the employees take the employer to court and get satisfaction. But if the court itself is the employer who breaks the contract, then where do the employees go for redress?

To the streets, Baby — take it to the streets!

An angry crowd mobbed the courthouse lawns and walkways last Friday brandishing placards and shouting, “Honor the contract.” That’s what I’m talking about! Yeah! Honor the contract, Your Honor!”

One particularly disgruntled woman, union rep Jacqueline Carvallo, wielding a megaphone, led the seething demonstrators in the “Honor the contract, Your Honors” chant as noon-hour traffic on State Street honked support and shouted encouragement, “Go get ‘em, baby! Get the fuckers!”

As everywhere else in the land, there's a growing disenchantment, an anger in Ukiah that working people are getting squeezed, and the powers that be, including the courts, especially the courts, are doing the squeezing.

This is the second time the court employees have taken their case to the streets.

The first time, a couple of months ago, their general attitude was relatively passive. A guy stuck his head out the Forest Club and wondered out loud, “What's that, a Weight Watcher's rally?” Sheriff’s Deputies were howling on the fiscal rack at the time, with a proposed 16% tightening of their salary strings, and most people assumed that the fuss in front of the Courthouse was somehow incidental to all that noise coming from the cops. But this had nothing to do with the County Supervisors’ hot passion to pass any budget cuts down to the working stiffs. This had to do with the lavishly remunerated few — the elite, their majesties, the judges of the superior court.

Their Honors often refer to “my clerk” or “my court reporter,” but the relationship, as the clerks and court reporters have discovered, is one-way, the judge's way.

And judges are insulated from direct accountability by an apparatus called the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). The AOC wants a new Courthouse. The AOC says rates of pay for everyone are just fine. The AOC says this, says that.

So what are the clerks and court reporters fussing about, anyway? A pay cut? Everybody on the public payroll has had to take pay cuts.

The clerks and court reporters think everyone should share the economic pain.

Everyone isn't.

First off — and this is the main sticking point — not everyone took a pay cut. The judges certainly didn't, and they're paid $180,000 a year plus perks that bring their total annual compensation to $250,000.

And they're nickel-nosing clerks and court reporters, hiding behind the phony-baloney AOC as they go?

The clerks and court reporters were the first to bite the bullet. There being no known anesthesia for having parts of your lifestyle amputated (things like base pay increases, pay for holidays, merit increases, and an additional 13 mandatory days off — all lopped off previously), these people were first to feel the bite of the bone saw, early in 2009. They voluntarily — and the media have ignored this crucial point —gave up five weeks of pay a year to help the State’s courts, their good faith effort to help with the deficit.

What did Their Honors do? Pin above and beyond medals on their clerks and court reporters?

No.

Did their Honors thank them?

No, again.

There was no acknowledgment of the sacrifice.

Court reporter and union negotiator Kimberly Foster declared, “Rather than having the concessions acknowledged or be appreciated, the workers are being characterized as uncooperative, unrelenting and ‘greedy’.”

Judge Jonathan Lehan recently bought himself a new Porsche to match the one he already had. Why not have two of everything? If Lehan's black robed colleagues are wearing hair shirts and dining on thin gruel it has not come to public notice. If it's time for austerity, time for us judges to set an example of thrift and sobriety while we beat back our clerks and court reporters, outta the way, Jack, not me. I'm judge.

As of September 2nd the court reporters were told by interim Court Executive Caryn Downing that the reporters will no longer be paid for their transcripts. They work on transcripts on their own time outside the court, and this work is considered self-employment, which is to say they have to buy the paper, toner, covers and sundry other items necessary for the transcripts. The price of these transcripts was frozen at a paltry three bucks and change back in the Pliocene. Yet, they’re required by law to produce reams and reams of precise testimony, on deadline, for the court, for both parties to the matter before the court, and to anyone else curious about any given case.

A court reporter requires exceptional ability and considerable skill. They can take down about 500 words per minute. Tape recorders are forbidden in a court of law. Their Honors won’t tolerate such devices. (Three of their Honors have stamped my request to use a tape recorder, “DENIED.” I suspect, however, if the big tv trucks from Oprah and 48 Hours rolled into Ukiah again as they did for the Vargas case, their Honors would be standing at their doors saying, “Come on in with your camera crews. Mi casa su casa.")

Court reporters are stenographers, of course, and their stenography has to be transcribed into faultless legally-precise English dialog; painstaking, labor-intensive, time-consuming drudgery for chump-change. Now, even the chump-change is being withheld.

Here’s another little trick the judges pull on the reporters: If the usual reporter happens to be languishing at home on a mandatory day off and the court needs a fill-in, they will call the pricey Ukiah private court reporter firm of Adair, Pottswald & Hennessay for a replacement, and damn the cost.

Hey, mandatory is mandatory.

The Mendocino County Superior Court workers are represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU). There’s about 65 of these workers without whom the courts could not function. SEIU Local 1021’s rep in Ukiah is Worksite Organizer Jacqueline Carvallo. She said the other day that “The AOC (Administrative Office of the Court) unilaterally imposed the terms of an expired side-letter agreement. They did not negotiate. The thing is, they have the money. They’re getting the money from the state and not passing it on to the workers.”

Kimberly Foster, an SEIU negotiator, seconded Carvallo, “The AOC called the workers back to the table for additional concessions prior to the State budget being passed, and while they were still voluntarily giving up money to the deficit out of their paychecks, the AOC and the Court’s Administration used a clause in the contract called a funding contingency. The funding contingency states the following: '10.5 Funding Contingency: The Court’s obligation to perform the monetary provisions of this MOU (memorandum of understanding) is contingent on receipt of funding from the AOC and, if necessary funding is not approved or appropriated, the Court shall be relieved of its economic obligations hereunder and the parties shall resume bargaining on all economic issues. The next step is arbitration'.”

The arbitration requirement will fall to the judges, and I’ll bet the beer money on that.

There are also about ten “unrepresented” workers. These would be the non-union “confidential” employees who serve the judges in a more personal aspect, something like Queen Elizabeth’s chamberlains, I suppose. And they, necessarily, would be the officers, functionaries, and flunkeys of the AOC.

Some of the judges’ more prominent gofers are Caryn Downing, April Allen, Robert Parrott and Janice Marmon. And the AOC’s lawyers are Scott Gardner and Diane Lucas, a couple of litigious gunslingers out of the AOC bunker in San Francisco.

The previous Court Executive, Ben Stough, quit recently and moved to Colorado back when the workers went public the first time. This left interim CEO Caryn Downing to face the strident chords of some very unpleasant music. What did she do?

She absconded. “She won’t be back ‘til after Tuesday,” I was told.

Tuesday’s the deadline for weekly newspapers.

I knocked on the heavy red maple door of the AOC at the Ukiah courthouse, which I eventually found down a quiet corridor on an upper level. There was no answer but I thought I saw the flicker of a shadow through the mottled pane of thick glass in the door. So I rapped again, my knocks echoing down the long dark, marble-laid hallway. Another faint flutter of movement in the glass. So I persisted. Eventually, the window was flooded with shadow, the lock clanked and the door opened a crack. A woman peered out with the scant travesty of a smile that said, “Go away.”

I bowed and scraped, produced my press credentials and finally talked my way in. It was the most tastefully appointed suite of offices in the Courthouse, from my experience. Two secretaries were seated a few paces from the door, yet it had taken several moments to get a response. The surfaces were immaculately polished and some lovely old tomes were arranged to catch the eye. I stated my business and one of the secretaries summoned a spokesperson whilst the other bade me sit down. Shortly the spoke-personage, Ms. Julie Lyly, entered, equipped with a notebook. She looked at me like I was a lab specimen. “I’ve been expecting you,” she said coolly.

Isn’t that what the spider said to the fly?

The door closed behind her like a Chubb safe.

Did she know the court workers were outside on the sidewalk, shouting out their discontent?

Yes, she’d been told it was an informational picket.

Perhaps she’d be good enough to answer some questions.

Perhaps. She wrote my questions in her notebook, rather than answering them, typically a tactic designed to allow time for committee-crafted non-answers and to preclude follow-up questions.

I thanked her for her time, and walked downstairs to rejoin the rabble.

Ms. Lyly called her answers in to the AVA offices while I was away. She had re-worded my questions.

Q1. We’re not sure the court understands the situation. [I’d asked if she was aware the workers felt the court didn’t understand the staffing problems caused by the mandatory time off (MTO). Her interpretation of the question indicates they do not.]

A1. In general, the court does understand that it’s difficult economically for everyone. All employees, represented and unrepresented are equally sharing the court’s cost-saving efforts. The judges are not sharing the pain, Ms. Lyly.

Q2. A day last month when a court reporter was off on a MTO day and the court hired an outside reporter — wasn’t this rather pricey?

A2. Yes, that did occur. The court’s current practice is to allow [curious word choice for mandatory day off] two court reporters off at a time and sometimes things happen which make it unavoidable to call in a per diem reporter. The court is reviewing this practice of allowing (my emphasis) two off at a time. The court doesn’t want it to happen again because the court does indeed want to save money.

[If a defendant tried this kind of minimizing in court, the judge would throw the book at him.]

Q3. Clerks whose specialties are either criminal or civil having to cover court proceedings outside their specialty. Was there a possibility of screw-ups?

[I’d asked if she were aware that clerks were complaining that they were being obliged to work outside their specialties, and in some cases they were not as proficient in the changed venue.]

A3. The need only occurs on a limited basis. Those matters are usually ministerial and within their abilities within the courtroom. Cases are routed appropriately after the matter is heard to the proper clerk. The court doesn’t think the public is at risk when it happens because it seldom happens and when it does it goes to the proper clerk anyway.

[Does this mean the “proper clerk” has to come and fix the screw-ups the substitute made?]

Q4. No resolution? Picked arbitrators?

[I’d asked if the court was ready to go to arbitration and if so, who would the arbitrators be?]

A4. The union has filed several grievances. The union has moved those grievances to the arbitration step of the process. Legal counsel for both sides are now conferring on the next step. The latest meeting was on August 26th. The meeting was limited to a discussion of the impact of MTO days. Ongoing court obligations were not discussed. That meeting was held July 7th. On that date the union informed the court it would no longer meet and confer regarding the court’s ongoing economic obligation as per the labor agreement. The court is willing to restart those talks any time.

[The coy Ms. Lyly’s bland non-answer refers the reader back to the expired side-letter, the 10.5 Memo Of Understanding with its stubbornly convoluted double-talk. The court is willing to restart those talks any time.]

Q5. [I hadn’t asked this fifth question.] Who is negotiating on behalf of the court?

A5. The court has a team. The lead negotiator is Scott Gardener. He’s employed by the AOC.

Back out on the street, I was talking to a couple of lawyers who were joining in the protest to show solidarity with the clerks and reporters. One said to the other, “Have you seen any of the judges come out?”

“Only one, Henderson. The others must have snuck out the back.”

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