A group of local judges has asked the state Supreme Court to hear its long-running dispute with Sheriff Brad Gates over his enforcement of jail sentences, a move that has angered county officials.
The judges of the Municipal Court's central branch in Santa Ana want the state Supreme Court to reimpose a 30-day jail sentence, a $17,000 fine and a contempt order that were imposed against Gates in May, 1991, because of his early release of county prisoners.
Gates maintains that the county's jail overcrowding dilemma has forced him to release prisoners before their sentences are served, but the judges complain that the practice is unnecessary and shows disrespect for the judiciary.
In August, a Santa Ana appellate court sided with Gates, chastising the judges for "shooting the messenger who bears ill tidings." The 4th District Court of Appeal found that Gates' early release of prisoners was justified because "he had no choice but to obey" a federal court order that has capped the inmate population at the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana.
County officials had hoped the feud would end there, but the judges this week asked the state Supreme Court to review the case.
In papers filed with the court Wednesday, the judges argued that letting the earlier ruling stand could leave them "essentially powerless" to ensure that justice is carried out in the sentencing of criminals.
"Review by this court is necessary to settle important questions of law," the judges said. "Few issues are as vital to the existence and effective functioning of the judiciary as the separation of powers doctrine."
The judges noted that the Supreme Court may decide not to hear their appeal. But their decision to pursue the matter nonetheless angered county officials, who maintain that such "family fighting" wastes taxpayer money. The county pays the legal costs for both the judges and Gates.
Neither Gates nor Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger R. Stanton was available for comment Thursday. But Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said the judges' action "makes me very unhappy. . . . They want to push their position at any cost. That's the way I see it."
Riley added that he is "saddened by the fact that with the county's money situation the way it is, we're going to be spending more money (to litigate the appeal). I hope the taxpayers will remember that" when the municipal judges are up for reelection.
Officials said the county has already spent more than $40,000 in legal fees on the case.
James M. Brooks, presiding judge in Municipal Court in Santa Ana, said simply asking the Supreme Court to hear the case should cost less than $100 in postage and filing fees. More expenses will come later if the high court decides to take the case.