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Larry Stirling
Larry Stirling is a former State Senator and Retired Superior Court Judge

Frank Brown Was Right
Unify the courts and end the duplication...
[Larry Stirling] 10/28/03

Frank Brown is a distinguished San Diego superior court judge. Prior to that, he was a prosecuting deputy district attorney. And prior to that, as was his equally famous father A.D. Brown, Frank Brown was a San Diego police officer.

Brown and I differed over the issue of "court unification."

I have always been one to welcome and actively sponsor reforms to make government more efficient internally and more effective externally.

So, in 1980, when a group of four El Cajon Municipal Court judges approached me as the State Assembly member for East County, I was pleased to learn that they were not just seeking, what every other government representative seeks, more money.

As a result of the "El Cajon Experiment," these four judges displayed practical proof that "unification" would substantially improve the internal efficiency of the courts.

In those days, California sported three separate levels of trial courts: Justice Courts handled infractions (no jail time); Municipal Courts handled misdemeanors (up to one year in jail) and minor civil cases; and Superior Courts exercised all remaining judicial power on behalf of the State of California.

Three separate court systems statewide equaled three separate bureaucracies, sets of rules, legal forms, records, facilities, and wastefully on and on.

The solution seemed to be self-evident. Unify the courts into one jurisdiction. That way, the presiding judge would be free to reallocate judicial resources throughout the jurisdiction to address backlogs.

In addition, the taxpayers would be relieved of very substantial waste and "triplification." Further, the public could get a full range of services at most any court facility in the state.

So, in 1981, I placed a constitutional amendment on the state ballot to unify the municipal and superior courts statewide.

And though the measure failed that year, the proposed constitutional amendment kicked off a long-term statewide debate about the value of the notion.

In 1985, I successfully carried to the statewide ballot a more modest measure to fold justice and municipal courts together. The voters approved.

The discussions among Brown, me and the rest of the judges on both benches came up as a result of Sen. (now Attorney General) Bill Lockyer's successful 1998 measure.

Lockyer's proposal to unify the two courts was almost the same as my 1980 measure, but with one very important difference.

His measure created a "county option" that allowed for local implementation only if approved by a vote of the judges in that county: a novel solution.

In those discussions, Brown (and others) contended that if the courts were "unified," the people served by the Municipal Court would be left behind.

His notion was that if all judges were "superior" they would not want to deal with infractions and misdemeanors and the other matters dealt with by the Municipal Courts that make up the vast bulk of the workload of the now unified San Diego Superior Court.

The San Diego Superior Court, in a recent year, had about 600,000 cases filed with it. (These numbers are not precise, but the perspective is correct.)

Of that total, around 80 percent of the cases were "criminal." And approximately 80 percent of criminal cases were infractions.

Infractions are by and large traffic violations, and constitute the biggest bulk of the workload for the court. And traffic adjudication is significant to public safety and results in around $100 million dollars in fines being levied annually. It is an important function.

Except for some very brief orientation visits, Superior Court judges handle none of those cases.

Of the balance, an estimated 80 percent of the cases are misdemeanors. Most misdemeanors "settle" during the arraignment or disposition hearings. With very few exceptions, Superior Court judges do not handle those cases.

On the "civil side," the most common cases, small claims and landlord-tenant disputes, are usually not handled by elected judges.

Instead, and in spite of the huge state budget short fall, the Superior Court hires employees and gives them the title of "commissioner." The commissioners handle the overwhelming majority of the court's workload in terms of numbers of cases.

And, this occurs even though the superior court judges themselves are very substantially underemployed.

I know you have always heard: "The courts are really backed up and the only reason we have commissioners is to help with the overload." That is simply not true.

Commissioners are hired to do the work that even newly minted Superior Court judges don't want to do.

Why doesn't some presiding judge cut out the commissioners and assign actual elected judges to do the job that they were elected to do?

The answer is that person would not be presiding judge for very long.

There are good administrative reasons for unification.

But Brown and others were right about what would happen to the municipal court litigants.

The court should assign superior court judges to do all the work of the Superior Court.

The presiding judge should do away with this judicial apartheid system and unify the courts as the voters instructed them to do.

copyright 2003 Larry Stirling


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