Speed-Up Policy Is Judge's Legacy to Pomona Court

Times Staff Writer

When Peter S. Smith took over as presiding judge of Pomona Superior Court in February, 1986, there were 1,230 civil cases awaiting trial. Most of the plaintiffs had been waiting for their day in court for five years.

By October, 1987, the number of pending cases had dropped to 615, and half of those cases had been awaiting trial for two years or less.

This marked decrease in the court's backlog is credited to Smith's controversial decision to deny most continuances.

"I feel very strongly about (judges) controlling their own calendars," said Smith, 54, who retired on New Year's Day. "We get criticized for a lot of things we have no control over, but this is something we can control. We can't solve all the social problems in the world by our decisions, but this is the least that can be expected of us."

Lawyers can request continuances, or postponements, for a number of reasons, including the absence of a key witness, the need to interview more witnesses or the need for more preparation time.

Stalling Tactic

But Smith contends that lawyers who have weak cases sometimes use continuances as a stalling tactic.

"Being engaged in another trial, or having a calendar conflict, are not good reasons for continuances," Smith said. "We have everyone involved in picking the trial date so they can't complain later."

Pomona Superior Court's no-continuance policy is strict but not unyielding. Smith said postponements are still granted when there has been an unforeseen change of circumstances after the trial date is set. He cited as examples the illness or death of a defendant, plaintiff, lawyer or witness.

Smith said the policy benefits everyone. Plaintiffs and defendants begin to see some approximation of a speedy resolution to their cases, and lawyers can have realistic expectations of when a case will go to trial.

"I can say, speaking from my earlier experience as a lawyer, that psychologically there's nothing worse than getting yourself pumped up for a trial and then having a continuance," Smith said.

"And then there are the problems of trying to keep witnesses on call."

Attorney Thomas Gerardi, who represents plaintiffs in civil suits, agreed, calling the no-continuance policy "terrific."

"I think lawyers are criticized a lot for dragging their feet, and it's a bum rap," Gerardi said. "If lawyers knew they really had a trial date, they would be prepared. . . . Nothing is worse than sitting on a fence and not knowing whether a trial is going to go."

Settlements Forced

The main reason the no-continuance policy has been so successful, Smith said, is that it has forced lawyers to try to settle out of court.

"You can have the best settlement judge in the world, but without the no-continuance (policy), he doesn't have the leverage he needs--the threat of going to trial," Smith said.

But lawyers and judges who have reservations about the policy say it works only if there are enough judges and courtrooms available, which is not the case in Los Angeles County.

Due to mounting backlogs at most county courthouses, trials often do not begin at the scheduled time because there is no judge or courtroom available. In those cases, the judge either "trails" the case, meaning that the parties involved must remain on call until a courtroom becomes available, or grants a continuance.

Attorney Robert Baker, who has represented defendants in civil cases in Pomona, said: "If there are courtrooms, then the no-continuance policy is a good thing. But trial dates don't mean anything because courtrooms are not available."

When no courtrooms were available in Pomona, Smith reserved the right to continue a case. But first he would require both parties to participate in a settlement conference. In many cases, he recalled, setting a trial date within 90 days would lead to a settlement within a week in a case that had dragged on for years. In a deadlocked case, Smith would continue it and set a new trial date.

The lack of courtroom space is probably the main reason other jurisdictions in the county have not adopted Smith's policy, judges said.

Presiding Judge Jack E. Goertzen of Los Angeles Superior Court said that although the no-continuance policy has been successful in Pomona, it would be difficult to introduce in his court, which has 60 judges assigned to civil cases and had 16,711 cases on the docket in October.

"We'd like to get our calendars in shape so that we would be able to institute a tougher policy, but it's going to be a while," Goertzen said. "We'd have people stuffed to the rafters with no place to send them. Right now, we've got such a humongous backlog that it's hard to invoke any sudden, dramatic changes in strategy."

Smith agreed that it would be difficult to establish the no-continuance policy in a court as large as Goertzen's, but he does not think it would be impossible.

"It's a natural reaction to say, 'We're in such bad shape, we can't do it,' " Smith said. "I disproved it. . . . We got results." Pomona's Superior Court has 11 judges to handle civil and criminal cases.

Smith said the lack of courtroom space was a problem when he began implementing the policy. "It was a tough first two months," he said.

In February, 1987, Smith persuaded criminal court judges and the district attorney's office in Pomona to work under the no-continuance policy.

Some lawyers who handle civil cases had complained that their cases were being bumped from the court calendar by the backlog in criminal cases, which have a higher priority in trial scheduling. By law, defendants in criminal cases have the right to have their cases heard within 60 days of being bound over for trial, and judges assigned to hear civil cases were being reassigned to criminal cases.

In courts that don't have the no-continuance policy, "all you ever hear is the criminal has to go to jail," Baker said. "Nobody seems to ever worry about someone who's been injured. They deserve to have their day in court too."

Gerardi agreed. "Someone charged with cocaine possession has her trial and knocks out a civil case," he said. "And many of these civil cases are . . . tragedies. A family's breadwinner is killed or huge medical bills have been incurred."

The no-continuance policy "puts pressure on the lawyers to get the cases settled," Smith said. "If the D. A. has a bad case and knows he's going to have to go out and try it, he'll get rid of it."

Gerardi said the key to the policy's success in Pomona is cooperation between the civil and criminal courts.

"I don't think the no-continuance policy of Pomona can work in other jurisdictions unless the D. A. is willing to get rid of" some lesser cases, he said.

Robert Johnson, who heads the Pomona district attorney's office, said the policy was hard on members of his staff initially because they had to prepare for more cases, but in the long run it made their jobs easier.

"Within a few months it accomplished a near miracle--the reduction of our caseload," Johnson said. "There was an initial frustration on the part of the deputy D. A.'s, but since then all I've heard is positive."

Nevertheless, others involved in the judicial system say the no-continuation policy is not enough.

San Fernando Superior Court Judge Robert D. Fratianne says the real cause of the backlog in civil cases is that they're increasing at an enormous pace. His staff has seen a 20% increase in the number of cases it handles over the past year, and expects another 10% increase in the workload in 1988.

"Just build us another courthouse behind this one, and we'll be fine," Fratianne said. "We need more facilities and more personnel."

Supervising Judge Robert Olson of Pasadena Superior Court said the nine judges in his courthouse must sometimes concentrate solely on criminal cases.

"The only thing that's going to work is a hell of a lot more courtrooms and judges," Olson said.

But Smith said that even with more judges, the court's backlog problem would not be solved without a no-continuance policy.

"Frankly, if you doubled the size of this court, you'd still have to deal with this problem," Smith said. "That's not to say we don't need more judges."

Presiding Judge Thomas Nuss of Pomona Superior Court, who succeeded Smith, agrees and intends to enforce the policy.

"I believe that Pomona has shown that through proper management, great things are able to be accomplished," he said.

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