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No Verdict on Changes at Courts : Justice: Opinion is split on streamlined system at Vista courts. Judges, public defenders like it. Prosecutors, defense attorneys don’t.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After nearly a year’s experimentation, efforts to streamline the flow of criminal cases through the Vista Municipal Courts--the most overworked among California’s largest courthouses--are receiving mixed reviews.

The Vista Municipal judges will discuss how they have been handling criminal cases in a meeting Tuesday, in light of an unusual alliance of criticism from the district attorney’s office and private defense attorneys.

The system is called vertical case management and, in theory, the plan is simple: On misdemeanor criminal cases, one of six judges is assigned the case from the get-go--starting with arraignment, through pretrial conferences when plea bargains can be struck, and then to trial and sentencing if the case gets that far. The system was devised after studies showed the Vista court to be the most backlogged court with more than 10 judges in the state.

Fans of the system--including Presiding Municipal Judge David Ryan--say it enables a single judge to set his own case calendar, become familiar with the case as it works through the process, become more familiar with repeat offenders who come back to their courtroom and, ultimately, resolve more cases with plea bargains so they don’t bog the system down with jury trials.

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The public defender’s office--which handles 90% of the misdemeanor criminal cases--hails the system, too, saying that by restructuring its own management of attorneys, vertical case management has proved efficient and effective.

But critics--primarily prosecutors and private defense attorneys--say the court process has become more cumbersome and has done little, if anything, to lead to additional plea bargains. The two attorney groups say vertical case management has generated logistic nightmares, sometimes forcing them to be in different courtrooms at the same time.

Furthermore, they say, if one of the six judges is sick or on vacation, his day’s caseload is transferred to another judge, thereby not only negating any advantages to the system but doubling the other judge’s load.

“The system really is more for the benefit of the judges than anyone else,” said defense attorney Richard Muir, characterizing the system as causing more problems than it resolves. “When the system works properly, and their work is done for the week and have no other cases coming their way, they can leave.”

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But Ryan says the opposite is true: since judges are personally responsible for managing their own calendars, they are apt to work more diligently to get through the case load. Before, judges might--to use Ryan’s own words--"milk the case out” until the weekend or a vacation just around the corner, thereby forcing a backlog of trials for other judges to handle.

Under the old system, used through 1990, a misdemeanor criminal defendant would appear in the master-calendar department, where the judge would assign the case first to a pretrial judge who would try to work out a plea negotiation. If the two sides and the pretrial judge couldn’t reach agreement, the trial was then sent to one of four trial judges, depending on who was “next up” to handle a case.

Supporters of that system say its mass-production efficiency, with one judge setting the calendar and one judge handling nothing but pretrial conferences, moved cases destined for trial quickly to a courtroom for resolution.

Granted, court officials say, the master calendar judge and the pretrial judge worked hectic schedules.

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But defense attorneys said that under that system, plea bargains were easier to accomplish because they had contact with at least three judges with whom plea bargains could be reached. They would pick their best shot with the judge they though would give them the best plea agreement.

Under the new system, a misdemeanor criminal defendant--say, someone suspected of drunk driving, petty theft or possession of a small amount of drugs--is assigned a judge based on the first letter of the suspect’s last name.

That judge would then hear any motions involving the case, try to compel a plea bargain and, if it comes to that, hear the trial himself. Many court officials say increasing plea bargains is the ultimate goal of the court process because they dispense with cases without bogging the system down with trials.

Defense attorneys--some of whom would only speak anonymously----say that if they find themselves arbitrarily assigned to one particular judge with whom they don’t anticipate winning an attractive plea bargain, they’ll try to stall the case until a day that the judge is not there, then propose their plea bargain with another judge.

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The effect, these attorneys say, is a slowed system.

The matter of making the Vista Municipal Courts more efficient is taken seriously among all parties.

In its 1991 annual report, the Judicial Council of California found that, among municipal courts with more than 10 judges, the Vista municipal courthouse had the greatest number of cases per judge awaiting trial at the end of the 1989-90 fiscal year. Vista has 11 judges, including those who hear civil matters and preliminary hearings for felony cases.

Each Vista criminal judge, on average, had 197 cases awaiting trial, compared with 186 cases awaiting trial per judge in San Mateo, which had the second largest backlog, 144 cases per judge in the San Diego Municipal Court, which ranked fifth, and 112 cases per judge in the Los Angeles Municipal Court, which ranked 15th in the state.

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Taking into account all 88 municipal court districts in California--from one-room courthouses to the largest--the Vista ranked 13th in the state for the number of cases awaiting trial per judge, and ranked 16th in the state for the number of misdemeanor cases filed per judge.

Court managers say the key to unburdening the system is for both sides in a criminal case to agree for the defendant to plead guilty to his crime--or a lesser version of it--and to serve an appropriate sentence or pay an appropriate fine. Such plea bargains assign guilt, mete out sentences and keep the courtrooms free for those cases that need a trial.

Ryan said he thinks the vertical case management system is eliciting more plea bargains, because the judges are working harder to bring adversaries to agreement.

“If I know a case is coming back for me to hear, I will work harder on trying to settle that case. And I think we are settling a lot more cases than we did before.”

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But Charles Bell, a supervising deputy district attorney, says he analyzed how misdemeanor crimes are resolved--and that there is virtually no change in the number of plea bargains under the new system.

Among 100 cases of drunk driving filed in July, 1990--under the old system--38 defendants pleaded guilty at arraignment, 39 pleaded guilty at a pretrial conference or on the eve of trial, 23 defendants failed to appear in court, and none of the cases went to trial.

Among 100 cases that were filed in July of this year--under the new system--39 pleaded guilty at arraignment, 35 pleaded guilty later, 24 defendants failed to appear in court, and 2 cases went to trial.

While the differences were small, it is clear, Bell said, that the new vertical case management has not succeeded in generating a significantly higher number of plea settlements.

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So far this year, there have been about 250 jury trials--about the same number as to this date a year ago, Bell said.

“We haven’t accomplished anything,” he said.

The greatest benefit of the new system, Bell said, is that with arraignments handled in the different courts versus one master-calendar courtroom, meaning there are fewer defendants in any given courtroom for arraignment, defendants are getting more personalized attention from the public defender’s office.

The public defender’s office--which handles about 90% of the misdemeanor cases because most misdemeanor criminal defendants are indigent--is a big supporter of vertical case management.

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The office simply assigns two public defenders to each of the six criminal courtrooms and those attorneys handle everything that comes their way in that courtroom, from arraignment to pretrial conferences to trial.

“No longer do we have to make conflicting appearances in conflicting departments,” said Larry Beyersdorf, who supervisors the public defenders staff in Vista.

“We’re better able to represent the defendants, with the same lawyer handling the case at every stage of the proceeding,” he said. “And we think it’s easier to dispose of cases earlier because the lawyers are getting to learn the judges’ sentencing patterns. There’s not as much sparring over plea negotiations because we have a pretty good idea of what the sentencing parameters will be.”

Besides, he said, under the old system there would be 10 public defenders in the single master-calendar department, awaiting for their cases to be announced.

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“So nine lawyers would be sitting around, waiting for the judge to get to their cases,” he said.

The district attorney’s office, on the other hand, manages its attorney staff differently, preferring to assign some district attorneys specifically for arraignment, some for pretrial negotiations and others for actual trial duty. The vertical case management system has thrown a wrench in the D.A.'s management style, and if the prosecutor’s office wants to continue specializing its attorneys, they have to scramble from one judge’s courtroom to the next.

The decentralized court system, said D.A. spokeswoman Linda Miller, “benefits the judges, but puts greater burden on the other users of the courtroom--including the victims, attorneys, police officers and clerical staff.”

The San Diego Municipal Court has considered--and rejected--vertical case management.

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“It’s labor intensive,” said Sandra Carter, the assistant court administrator.

Besides, even if the San Diego Municipal Court wanted to adopt vertical case management, “it would be a difficult transition for a court of our size” because, at any given time, there are hundreds of cases in the system that would have to be reassigned in midstream--a logistic nightmare.

But the Vista judges like vertical case management, according to Judge Ryan. (Several judges who were asked to comment declined to, and referred questions to Ryan.)

“From a presiding judge’s perspective, my whole year has been made much easier,” Ryan said. “Where before I’d have to handle 60 cases a week, now each of the six judges handles 10 cases. And this year, not a single case has had to be dismissed” because it had stalled so long in the system that the time for a speedy trial had lapsed.

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“Last year, we regularly had zero-day (deadline) cases stacked up, and judges would have to drop everything to get to them. We haven’t had any of those cases this year,” Ryan said.

“We know a lot of the lawyers are unhappy with it, though,” Ryan conceded. “Instead of going to one department and taking care of all their cases, they have to go to any one of six courtrooms.”

While Ryan said he hasn’t yet reviewed Bell’s figures that indicate that there are no fewer plea bargains under the new system, he theorizes why that might be the case.

“Under the old, master calendar system, in order to get rid of all the cases, plea bargain offers were being made and the proposed, indicated sentences were being low-balled by the judges, just to move them out of the courts and lighten the calendar,” Ryan said.

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Defense attorney Rick Mills said he recognizes some of the advantages of the new vertical case management system.

“It works with efficient judges, and doesn’t with inefficient judges,” he said. “And if I were a judge, I would really like it. Under the old system, you could literally do nothing but be a drunk-driving trial judge for six months at a time, and I think that would get extremely boring.

“But by handling your own calendar with every case that comes your way, there’s more responsibility, and more challenge.”


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