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Judges Back Plan to Let Lower Courts Try Felony Cases

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Citing an increasing backlog of cases awaiting trial, Ventura County’s judges have voted to overhaul the criminal court system and let lower court jurists preside over felony trials, officials said Tuesday.

“Some weeks we can handle the criminal cases and some weeks we can’t,” Presiding Superior Court Judge Robert S. Bradley said. The merger plan won unanimous support from higher court judges, but drew criticism from defense attorneys, who said the plan could be illegal.

Under the plan, scheduled to go into effect in September, 10 jurists from both the Municipal and Superior courts would be designated criminal trial judges. An 11th judge would serve as a “flight controller,” whose job would be to parcel out the trials to the other 10.

The Superior and Municipal court trial judges would preside over both misdemeanor and felony trials. Presently, the lower court handles all misdemeanor cases, arraignments and preliminary hearings for felonies. But felony cases are handed off to Superior Court for trial.

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Bradley said that while one Municipal judge is now assigned to the Superior Court full time, the addition of at least four more lower court judges with the ability to preside over felony trials will go a long way to cracking open a backlog of cases waiting for an open courtroom.

“The calendars in both courts run in peaks and valleys,” he said. “Some weeks, the Municipal Court is slow while the Superior Court gets jammed, and vice versa.”

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While court officials hailed the reorganization plan as an innovative way of handling a growing calendar, some Ventura County defense attorneys--including Ventura County Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman--oppose the move, calling it illegal.

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“It’s not permitted by law,” Clayman said. “Municipal Court judges were appointed to hear Municipal Court cases.”

He said court officials should wait to see what happens to a constitutional amendment winding its way through the state Legislature that would, if successful, allow counties to voluntarily merge their two-tiered court system into one.

Defense attorney Tim Quinn, who also opposed the move, predicted that appeals will be filed against the first felony trials assigned to a Municipal judge.

“The backlog could be better handled by judges taking a stronger role in pretrial [plea] negotiations,” Quinn said.

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The amendment, which is scheduled for a vote before the Assembly Judiciary Committee today, needs two-thirds approval in each house and approval by the California electorate before it becomes law.

A similar proposal stalled in the Legislature three years ago, partly because opponents objected to its mandate that all counties would have to merge their courts.

“That language has been removed and, if counties don’t want to merge, they don’t have to,” said a spokesman for state Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who is carrying the legislation. “But we believe it will help courts better handle the increase in cases they are seeing.”

Proponents of court unification point to the Sacramento County court system as a judicial model of the future.

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There, Municipal judges have been hearing Superior Court issues in both civil and criminal law, and vice versa, for four years. Sacramento County has assigned Municipal judges to its juvenile and family law benches, court administrator Mike Roddy said.

Meanwhile, he said, Superior Court judges have willingly taken on Municipal Court assignments that helped eliminate a two-year backlog of cases during the first year of operation.

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“The Superior Court judges are willing to take what they get,” Roddy said. “They realize that everybody has to pitch in.”

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Indeed, Bradley said none of his colleagues on the higher court have complained about the possibility of presiding over lower court hearings and voted unanimously last week to adopt the plan, which is still open to fine tuning.


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