A program that provides protection for the state's highest courts has cost taxpayers almost $22 million since 2009.
An alliance of more than 500 state superior court judges said the perk, which they call "Judicial Chauffer Service," provides those in the higher courts with armed drivers at their requests. Members of the alliance said the cost is unnecessary and has been questioning the California Administrative Office of the Courts, or AOC, about the multi-million-dollar expenditure.
By law, the California Highway Patrol has to provide armed security services to any current or former judge on the state's highest courts if they request it. Current and former members of the California Supreme Court and the six appellate courts are eligible.
Over the past five months, News10 has been looking into how that money is spent and why.
The money covers the salaries, overtime, benefits, meals, hotels and other travel expenses and the mileage costs of 25 CHP officers assigned to the state's Judicial Protection Section.
In February, over a two-day period, News10 followed a group of the section's CHP cars. News10 watched seven officers not in uniform in black, unmarked cars picked up justices outside the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building where the state supreme court hears oral arguments twice yearly. The rest of the year they hear cases in San Francisco and occasionally in Los Angeles.
The Alliance of California Judges said it questioned the AOC for years about the costs, but it refused to turn over its accounting records.
"They lack transparency. They lack accountability," Alliance member and Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gillard said. "They lack a true rigorous search for exactly what the taxpayer is getting for the amount of money that is being spent."
Invoices show that CHP officers who work in the section drive an average of about 20,000 miles per month at a cost to taxpayers of 96 cents per mile.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who makes the ultimate budget decisions at the AOC, declined to comment on the story.
The CHP provided the following statement on the Judicial Protection Service:
"JPS's primary mission is to provide security and protection for the California Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal, their employees and the public who conducts business in the largest judicial court system in the nation.
"In line with this mission, JPS is responsible for providing security for 112 justices and nine geographically separate court facilities throughout the State. The vast majority of the duties include ensuring a safe work environment for the Judiciary and its staff, assisting the public in conducting business with the court, providing bailiff duties, building security functions, initiating investigations of threats made against the Judiciary, and on an 'as needed' basis, provide protective details to judicial members of the Courts."
Threats received by members of the judiciary are investigated. The details are not discussed nor are the details on how or where JPS deploys its personnel as doing so would be counter-productive and could jeopardize the safety and security of its protectees."
Gilliard said the alliance has asked for information about those threats.
"If that $21 million represents justices who have had their lives threatened that's one things, but if it represents drives to the airport or drives to parties after work or others things such as that, then I think the taxpayers have a right to be concerned, " Gilliard said.
News10 asked former 3rd District Court of Appeals Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland whether the service is being abused and if he knows of any specific threats
"Well, I'm not going to name anyone. There were two justices on the third appellate district that were stalked and the CHP was able to intervene." Scotland said. "It's just complete nonsense, totally inaccurate that the CHP drives appellate justices from their home to work every day. That's just nonsense."
"I think there needs to be a true assessment of what the threat is, and then comparing that against the $20 million the taxpayers are footing for that security," Gilliard said.
At the JLAC hearing in March, committee members voted unanimously to order an audit of the AOC.
A group of California Highway Patrol officers are tasked to protect higher level California judges on the taxpayers' dime. (Thursday, April 24, 2014) News10