Superior, Municipal Courts Will Merge


In a major move aimed at reducing the backlog in the county’s trial courts, judges have voted to combine the municipal and superior courts into a single system, officials announced Thursday.

The move, effective Aug. 10, will nearly double the size of the Superior Court and allow the county’s 108 judges to handle all types of cases wherever they are needed.

Municipal judges might be assigned to felony cases or be called upon to help out in other courthouses where work is piling up.


Currently, municipal judges generally handle misdemeanors and traffic violations, while Superior Court judges tackle trials involving more serious offenses.

But initially, the county’s trial court system--the state’s third largest behind Los Angeles and San Diego counties--will continue as it is, said Alan Slater, executive officer of Orange County Superior Court.

“Nothing really is going to change on Aug. 10. Municipal Court judges will continue to do the same kind of thing, and the same for Superior Court judges,” Slater said.

“But that may change as time evolves. We’re in the process of trying to use all available resources, without the barriers of jurisdictional walls, in order to better serve the public.”

North Municipal Court Judge Gregg Prickett said the consolidation is a much-needed change that has been in progress for years and will make the system “much more efficient.”

“For example, on a felony criminal case, there are several steps in transferring a case from Municipal to Superior Court,” Prickett said. “It is an incredible duplication of effort that will no longer be present.”


The merger, which is allowed under a statewide ballot initiative passed in June and approved by a majority vote of the county’s trial judges, has been criticized by some attorneys who question whether municipal judges can handle felony cases.

But Judge Thomas J. Borris, presiding judge of the Municipal Court in Westminster, said it is unlikely that a judge who is not familiar with felony laws will be assigned to such a case.

“It’s as simple as this: Every judge has certain abilities, every judge has certain skills, and every judge has certain interests,” Borris said. “A judge who doesn’t have ability to try death penalty [cases] probably will not be assigned such a case. That would be crazy.”

Some municipal judges, such as Prickett, already handle felony trials on a case-by-case basis, which is allowed under the California Constitution.

The consolidation basically formalizes the process so that judges can be assigned any type of case without having to go through the red tape previously required when a case is transferred between municipal and superior courts, officials said.

“The boundaries set up in the late 1800s or early 1900s are now dissolved,” Borris said. “This is much more responsive to the needs of the county.”


At Municipal Court in Laguna Niguel, where an increase in the caseload has been significant, court officials would be able to transfer judges from other jurisdictions to alleviate the backlog, a move they are not allowed to do under the present system, Borris said.

Statewide, 46 other counties have voted to consolidate their trial court systems since voters passed Proposition 220 by a 64% vote, according to the Judicial Council of California, which must approve the vote to unify the trial courts.

Because a separate state initiative already allows municipal judges to be paid on par with their Superior Court colleagues as of this year, the consolidation will not significantly increase the cost of operations, Slater said.

However, judges must choose a presiding judge along with an executive committee in a new election that must be held within 90 days of the consolidation, Slater said. Superior Court Presiding Judge Kathleen E. O’Leary is expected to remain as the trial courts’ top jurist, and efforts are underway to expand the executive committee to 11 members from seven.


Merger in Legal System

Orange County’s trial court judges have voted to merge municipal and superior courts into a single system, allowing judges to serve where needed. Judges for both courts are elected and serve six-year terms. CALIFORNIA COURT SYSTEM

Supreme Court (1 court, 7 justices)

Courts of appeal (6 districts, 93 judges)

Superior courts (58 courts, 804 judges)

Municipal courts (109 courts, 676 judges)


WHAT THEY HEAR: Felony cases, civil suits over $25,000, wills/estates/conservatorships,

family law, juvenile matters, injunctions and Municipal Court appeals.

CASES FILED IN O.C.*: 996 per judge

Cases set for trial: 45 per judge

JUDGE’S QUALIFICATIONS: Must be a judge for 10 years

ANNUAL SALARY: $107,390 per year


WHAT THEY HEAR: Traffic cases, civil cases less than $25,000, small claims and felony preliminary hearings.


CASES FILED IN O.C.*: 10,378 per judge

Cases set for trial: 135 per judge

JUDGE’S QUALIFICATIONS: Must be a lawyer for 5 years


* As of 6/30/97

Source: Judicial Council of California