Order in the Courts : Disciplining judges--and streamlining justice
The California Legislature is edging toward opening a long-overdue public dialogue on court reform. Proposed constitutional amendments now under debate would, if approved, permit the voters to decide whether to reorganize the increasingly cumbersome trial court system and whether to shed daylight on the state’s largely secretive and ineffective system of disciplining wayward judges. Both changes are needed. Lawmakers have shown little appetite over the years for challenging the judiciary on matters relating to its comportment and organization. Lately, however, momentum for reform has been building.
Changing the way the Commission on Judicial Performance operates is clearly the more pressing need. California was once a leader in monitoring and disciplining judges. No longer is that true. The commission, created in 1960, is dominated by the judges themselves, conducts its business largely in secret and, according to a growing number of critics, is ineffective at investigating the increasing charges of malfeasance on the bench and at imposing discipline.
The California commission has held public hearings in only two judicial discipline cases in its 33-year history. The second began Tuesday in Fresno, in the shadow of steady progress by the Legislature toward approval of a proposed constitutional amendment. Two similar bills, which would be reconciled and passed as one measure, would add more citizen members to the commission, give the commission broader rule-making and budgetary discretion and require public hearings to be held once preliminary investigations were completed and formal charges had been filed.
Privately, many state judges oppose these changes, and the California Judges Assn. and the California Judicial Council, which is charged with overseeing operation of the state courts, have taken no formal position on the measures. Such indifference or opposition is sad to see; these proposals make a great deal of sense.
So too does the proposal, still clinging to life in the Legislature, to consolidate the state’s trial courts by eliminating municipal and justice courts and directing superior courts to hear all original civil and criminal matters. This proposed constitutional amendment fell short of the required two-thirds majority when the Assembly voted on it last month. It may come up again in coming weeks; we hope it passes.
That measure, Senate Constitutional Amendment 3, would complete the voluntary administrative coordination launched in 1991 under the Trial Court Realignment and Efficiency Act. As part of that effort, administrators and clerks who serve municipal and superior judges in the same counties are merging, eliminating much staff duplication, effort and cost. SCA 3 would go further, replacing the separate justice, municipal and superior courts with a single, unified court. The move would eliminate the overlapping jurisdictions among these trial courts and streamline operations. Unification is also projected to result in long-run savings.
Consolidation would have the effect of elevating municipal and justice court judges to the superior court. They would share the same duties as superior court judges and receive the same pay. Many sitting superior court judges are concerned about the elevation of so many lower court judges; some worry also that SCA 3 might result in higher public costs in the short run.
But to our mind, the long-run advantages of trial court consolidation--both in terms of efficiency and cost--outweigh possible short-term problems. More immediately, however, we think that the Legislature should approve this measure, putting it on the ballot so that voters themselves can have a chance to decide.