Ronald Lopez of Oxnard was charged with lying on his workers’ compensation forms. Daniel Raymond Goff of Ventura allegedly tried to rob a woman leaving an automated-teller machine. And Mitchell McKenzie was accused of stealing a $600 mountain bike.
Different crimes, different circumstances, different defendants.
But the three accused criminals had one thing in common: They didn’t like the judge assigned to hear their cases.
Each was assigned a judge from the Ventura County Municipal Court instead of from the Superior Court, which normally handles felony matters.
Under a consolidation plan that went into effect April 4, two municipal judges--Bruce A. Clark and Herbert Curtis III--were elevated to the Superior Court to help ease a growing caseload.
But Lopez, Goff and McKenzie didn’t want to have municipal judges deciding their fate. Preferring a Superior Court judge because they have more experience with felony cases, each defendant challenged the new system in the state appeals court.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the challenges and local judicial authorities now say municipal judges will be routinely cross-assigned to the Superior Court when they are needed to keep the operation running smoothly.
In an interview, Presiding Superior Court Judge Melinda A. Johnson said the consolidation plan allows the court to stay on top of a burgeoning caseload without adding new judicial posts.
The court’s caseload is larger because of the new three-strikes law and a trend toward hiring more prosecutors--who file more cases for judges to hear.
In a declaration to the appeals court, Johnson expressed concern about the need for consolidation.
She called the busy courthouse “a madhouse environment all week long” and said that “without cross-assigning Municipal Court judges, we would never take care of the Superior Court’s current court load.”
To public defenders, Johnson’s statement shows a blatant disregard for the state Constitution, which provides for separate Municipal and Superior courts.
But the Judicial Council of California has authorized officials in counties statewide to cross-assign judges on a temporary basis.
What is temporary, however, is in dispute.
Deputy Public Defender Christina L. Briles said it means that cross-assignments are appropriate only in emergency situations “when the need arises.”
“What we’re saying is that the authority was intended to be a temporary problem-solver,” said Briles, who filed the challenge with the appeals court.
Johnson said the cross-assignments in Ventura County are indeed temporary.
But both municipal judges who now try felonies have moved their courtrooms and offices to the third and fourth floors of the Hall of Justice. Those floors were previously reserved for Superior Court judges.
“The average guy in the street is going to say, ‘I don’t care what kind of judge (a defendant) has unless I have to appear in front of the judge,’ ” Briles said. “ ‘And if I appear in front of him, he’d better know what in the hell he’s doing.’ ”
Just last week, Ronald Lopez pleaded guilty to workers’ compensation fraud when prosecutors agreed to reduce the two felony charges against him to misdemeanors.
Lopez’s case resulted from an injury he suffered to his right knee in January, 1992, while loading supplies onto a truck at Oxnard Welding Supplies in Port Hueneme. He collected benefits by filing false claims after the injury had healed, prosecutors said.
Clark, who refused Lopez’s request to allow a Superior Court judge to handle the case, sentenced Lopez to three years probation, court records show.
Clark will sentence Mitchell McKenzie on June 6. McKenzie also objected to the municipal judge hearing his residential-burglary case.
McKenzie was arrested Feb. 13, after a resident of Foster Avenue in Ventura said he saw him riding off with a $600 bicycle from a neighbor’s garage. The witness, Antonio Rojas, testified at a preliminary hearing before Judge Clark. Rojas told the judge that he confronted McKenzie as he was pedaling away.
“When I confronted him, he was walking the bike,” Rojas testified. “I asked him why he took the bike. He said because he was tired of walking.”
Clark accepted McKenzie’s guilty plea and sentencing is set for June 8. McKenzie, who had a .25 blood-alcohol level when he committed the crime, faces 11 years for stealing the bicycle, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Douglas W. Daily.
Judge Curtis refused to remove himself from the case involving Daniel Goff, 43, charged with robbing an Oxnard sandwich-shop owner of $9 on Nov. 28, 1993. That same day, Goff allegedly tried to snatch the purse of a woman who was leaving an ATM at a South Ventura Road shopping center in Oxnard.
In a non-jury trial, Curtis convicted Goff of one count of robbery and one count of attempted robbery. The judge is scheduled to sentence the defendant June 16.
“One of the reasons we took as many cases as we did is we anticipated it would be a long process and that there would be litigants not willing to deal with the stress of litigation,” Briles said when asked about the guilty pleas entered by Lopez and McKenzie. “We plan to continue to litigate these issues.”
In some other counties, defendants affected by cross-assigning have faced charges more serious than fraud and theft.
In a San Bernardino case, a murder defendant was convicted by a jury before a municipal judge. It is being appealed because of the cross-assignment, said San Diego attorney Carmela Frances, who represents the defendant in the appeal.
Consolidation proponents believe the Constitution is outdated and are trying to put an amendment to it on the ballot that would unify Superior, Municipal and rural Justice courts across the state.
Several proponents--including state Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), according to a spokesman--believe Ventura County’s experiment with cross-assignment will play a key role in whether the constitutional amendment makes it to the ballot and succeeds statewide.
But court officials say the cross-assigning will help the courts operate more efficiently. “We really are doing a service to the taxpayer,” said Johnson, presiding judge of Superior Court.