A shortage of judges in Riverside County has led to the dismissal of hundreds of criminal cases, a practice the California Supreme Court upheld on Monday and blamed on the state's budget woes.
In unanimous ruling, the state high court said Riverside County's dearth of judges represented a "chronic" problem that was the fault of the budget-strapped state.
The case before the court involved an accused burglar, one of 18 criminal defendants whose cases were dismissed on the same day after they invoked their rights to speedy trials. Two of the 18 were charged with felonies.
Riverside County Deputy Public Defender William A. Meronek said Monday's ruling also would end prosecution for as many as 300 other defendants whose cases were on appeal after being dismissed for lack of judges. But Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Tate said his office would fight to prosecute the most serious of the dismissed cases.
"There are quite a few very serious allegations, some involving dead bodies — vehicular manslaughter, assault on police officer, assault with deadly weapon, crimes against children," said Tate, who argued the case before the Supreme Court.
The judiciary has long insisted that California needs more judges, but nowhere has the shortage been more dramatic than in Riverside County.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the court, said in Monday's ruling that "the lack of available courtrooms and judges was attributable to the Legislature's failure to provide a number of judges and courtrooms sufficient to meet the rapidly growing population in Riverside County."
Riverside prosecutors challenged the dismissals, arguing that the court should have made every judge in the courthouse, including those in juvenile, family law and probate, available for the cases.
But the state high court said Riverside County already was giving criminal cases priority over civil disputes, and the court was not required to halt proceedings in civil cases to make room for criminal matters.
An absolute rule giving precedence to all criminal cases could force a court "to abandon entirely its responsibility to provide for the fair administration of civil as well as criminal matters," George wrote.
"When the lack of a judge or courtroom available to timely bring a criminal defendant to trial is fairly and reasonably attributable to the fault or neglect of the state, that circumstance does not constitute good cause to delay the defendant's trial," wrote George, who has been lobbying the state Legislature for more judges.
A 2004 study by the Judicial Council, which George heads, said 350 new judgeships were needed in the state. Since then, the Legislature has authorized 100 new judicial positions.
In a 2008 report to the Legislature, the Judicial Council ranked Riverside County the most in need of judges. A task force the year before had found that 25% of jail inmates in Riverside had been awaiting trial for more than one year, 177 for more than two years, 32 for more than four years and one for more than eight years.
Many of those cases may already have been dismissed, said Meronek, who handles appeals for the public defender.
"The courts are just overwhelmed by both the exponential growth in population and by some extent to the district attorney's charging policy," Meronek said. "They tend to pursue everything, and they are reluctant to plea bargain or negotiate any settlement."
Most of the dismissals were for criminal misdemeanors, Meronek said. He said the lack of judges appeared to be "an increasing problem because of the economic times" whose solution may be "far off in the distance."
But Riverside County Superior Court Presiding Judge Thomas Cahraman said a new case management system has prevented any dismissals for lack of a courtroom since June 2009. The ruling, he added, would "have a huge precedential effect statewide on any case that's dismissed because of a lack of a courtroom."
Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Bill Mitchell said the office's charging policy was not to blame for the congestion. He said only about 3% of criminal filings make it to trial.
Prosecutors said about 250 of the dismissed cases were for misdemeanors and about 70 were for felonies. They said they had refiled most of the felonies. The dismissals occurred over about a two-year period.
In a footnote in Monday's ruling, George noted that the Legislature has authorized 14 new judges for Riverside County but funded only half the positions. George has assigned retired judges and jurists from other counties to take cases from Riverside.
"The growth in workload in the Riverside Superior Court between 2004 and 2008 'largely overwhelmed' even the significant allocation of new judgeships to that court," George wrote, citing a statewide courts' report.
The lead case before the court involved Terrion Marcus Engram, who had been charged with attempted premeditated murder and first-degree burglary. A jury acquitted him of attempted murder and found him guilty of burglary.
An appeals court overturned the burglary conviction, and a second trial ended in a hung jury. The case was set for a new trial on Sept. 29, 2008.
On that day, Engram objected to any further delay, as did 17 other defendants facing trials. After finding there were no courtrooms available to try the cases, a judge dismissed them the following day.