A new plan designed to make Ventura County courts operate more efficiently includes a component that for the first time gives some Municipal Court judges authority to preside over death-penalty and other felony cases.
Municipal Court judges in Ventura and most other California counties are now allowed to try only misdemeanors and hold preliminary hearings in felonies. They can send a defendant to county jail but not to state prison.
But that will change in February, when Ventura County joins a handful of counties in the state that cross-assign some Municipal and Superior Court judges on a full-time basis.
Part of a broad plan to break away from the traditional two-tiered court system, the restructuring has unsettled some judges, who say the plan could result in inexperienced judges handling matters of life and death.
In a recent vote, for example, four of the 15 Superior Court judges objected to the plan, Assistant Presiding Judge Melinda A. Johnson said.
Johnson and other supporters, however, contend that the plan provides badly needed relief for the five judges now hearing criminal cases on the Superior Court bench.
They add that a rise in felony cases involving drugs, property and violence is the reason they need the latitude to assign municipal judges to the Superior Court.
But opponents charge that the restructuring violates the state Constitution, among other things.
James M. McNally, one of the Superior Court judges now handling criminal matters, has been the most vocal critic of the plan. In an interview, he described the plan as "a complete alteration of the California Constitution."
The Constitution gives superior courts jurisdiction over felony matters, civil actions involving more than $25,000, and family and juvenile law.
Municipal courts' jurisdiction extends to misdemeanors, traffic infractions, civil actions under $25,000, and preliminary hearings on felonies.
McNally noted that voters statewide rejected by a 2-to-1 margin a 1982 ballot measure that would have allowed counties to unify municipal and superior courts. State lawmakers plan to put the initiative on the ballot again next year, a legislative spokesman said.
"What this does is essentially go around the will of the people, when the people have spoken au contraire, " McNally said of the restructuring plan. "It's the same old hag in a different gown."
Like others, McNally conceded that many municipal judges have the knowledge and experience to handle felony cases with little difficulty. But others may not, he said.
He also said the plan might ultimately cost taxpayers more money. Superior Court judges earn $99,297, while Municipal Court judges make $90,680.
"Certainly, municipal judges will not continue to do Superior Court work without a pay raise," McNally said.
California has 789 Superior Court judge positions and 617 on the municipal level. Ventura County has 15 Superior Court judges and 12 positions for municipal judges.
Judge Johnson, who heads a committee overseeing the restructuring, said two of the municipal jurists will start handling felony cases here in February. She said the two judges have yet to be picked.
As part of the selection process, senior court officials have been meeting with representatives from the public defender, the district attorney and the private bar, Johnson said.
According to some who have attended those meetings, court officials have asked the various representatives which municipal judges they would least want handling felony cases and which ones they would most want hearing them.
A spokesman for Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said the prosecutor's office is not opposing the restructuring plan. Prosecutors realize that Superior Court judges need help with their burgeoning caseload, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin J. McGee said.
"Superior Court judges are working exceedingly hard trying to keep the criminal (caseload) afloat," McGee said.
But McGee acknowledged that there are some municipal judges whom the district attorney's office would prefer to see sticking with misdemeanors.
"There's no doubt that personalities will come into play," he said.
Generally, the Municipal Court is seen as a place where judges can get training and experience before seeking appointment or election to the more prestigious Superior Court. At the Ventura County Hall of Justice, the judges are separated, with Municipal Court judges occupying most of the first and second floors while Superior Court jurists have the third and fourth floors.
More than one-third of the county's Superior Court judges never served in Municipal Court. McNally and judges Richard D. Aldrich, William L. Peck, Steven Z. Perren, Allan L. Steele and Lawrence Storch were appointed directly to the higher court.
Qualifications for the posts differ. State law, for instance, requires an attorney to be a member of the California State Bar for at least 10 years before joining the Superior Court as a judge. To qualify for the municipal bench, an attorney must be a member of the bar only five years.
"No doubt Municipal Court is seen as a training ground for superior courts and higher courts," McGee said. "But I don't think that just because someone is in Municipal that they are incapable of handling a felony matter."
At the public defender's office, some lawyers have privately come up with lists of which municipal judges they would want hearing felonies and which ones they would not.
"A lot of it depends on who the judges are," said Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman. He supports the plan, provided the two new felony judges are to his liking.
Municipal Judge Herbert Curtis III said he and his colleagues are as ready to handle felony cases as the current Superior Court judges were during their first year on that bench.
"At any given time you could be a Municipal Court judge today, then tomorrow all of a sudden you're a Superior Court judge," Curtis said. "What has made me all of a sudden more qualified?"
Curtis also said that, to his knowledge, all of the Municipal Court judges have the requisite 10 years experience as attorneys to qualify for the Superior Court.
Legally, court officials in Ventura County cannot be stopped from proceeding with their plan, Clayman said. The chief justice of the California Supreme Court has sanctioned cross-assigning municipal and superior judges, he said.
Nonetheless, Clayman said that won't stop him from challenging the issue in an appellate court if a municipal judge makes a decision he considers unmerited.
Judge Johnson, who becomes presiding judge in January, said she welcomes any legal fight from Clayman or anyone else on the issue.
"I wouldn't be surprised if someone challenged it," Johnson said. "That's how these things get solved."
Ventura County Superior and Municipal courts became the first in the state to consolidate their administrations in 1989. Johnson noted that there are other, less controversial aspects of the current restructuring.
For instance, two municipal judges started hearing Superior Court civil cases in October.
But McNally said more is at stake when criminal courts are consolidated. Under the restructuring, he said, municipal judges will go from hearing misdemeanor and traffic matters to death-penalty and other felony cases.
"The idea of giving life-and-death power to some (municipal judges) is frightening," he said. "It's damn scary."