In a move designed to speed the civil and criminal justice system, four municipal judges in Vista will begin sharing courtrooms next month, each being available for separate trials in the morning and the afternoon.
The shared-courts concept, said by Presiding Municipal Judge Michael Harris to be unique in San Diego County, calls for two judges to work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and to conduct trial matters from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m.
The two judges working the "afternoon shift" will work from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., conducting their trials from 1 to 6 p.m. in the same courtrooms used by their counterparts in the morning.
Each judge is now assigned to his own courtroom and usually presides over trials from 8:30 or 9 in the morning until 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon, with a lunch break from noon to 1:30 p.m.
Harris said Monday that, under the new schedule, each trial will proceed without a lunch break, giving each virtually as much courtroom time as the traditional process--but allowing more cases to go to trial.
With that prospect, Harris said, not only will cases be assigned courtrooms quicker, but he also expects more cases to be resolved before a trial begins. The reason, he said, is that many civil and criminal cases are protracted, and pretrial settlements not easily come by, as the parties--especially those involved in criminal cases--delay plea bargains or settlements until the last moment before trial.
"But, if they're told they can go to trial tomorrow, they may find suddenly find their case worth settling," Harris said.
There are now eight permanent courtrooms in Vista and a ninth situated in a trailer annex. A 10th courtroom is in Escondido. Nine judges and a commissioner are now assigned to the Vista Municipal Judicial District--one jurist per courtroom.
But Harris said the shared courts will allow the judge assigned to hear criminal cases in Escondido to instead hear matters in Vista, where prisoners are temporarily housed and where the prosecutors and public defenders' offices are situated.
Furthermore, Harris said, he hopes that a 10th judge will soon be named to fill a vacancy in Vista, and that this move will also make available a courtroom for that judge. If that position were already filled, there would be no place for him to hear matters.
"We've looked at all the options available to us to relieve overcrowding and to speed up the system--including night courts--and this is the best alternative," Harris said.
The judges participating in the shared courtrooms will be Michael Burley, Suzanne Knauf, Luther Leeger and S. Patricia Rosenbaum.
Harris said the judges will use their chambers to hear matters when they are out of their courtroom, including settlement conferences and other meetings.
He said attorneys he has contacted about the plan have been supportive, noting that they normally begin their workdays by 7:30 a.m. anyway, and frequently don't finish until after 6 p.m.
Some clerical staff members will be paid overtime to accommodate the prolonged courtroom day from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., while bailiffs will work in somewhat staggered shifts, Harris said.
Some judges already have instituted trial times from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. without a lunch break and report favorable reaction from jurors who are allowed to go home at mid-day and from attorneys and investigators who use the afternoon to research and prepare their cases for the next day.
The shared courts will begin Oct. 3 with jury trials, and Nov. 1 with preliminary hearings.