SF Superior Questions Study That Downplays Its Judicial Needs

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The need for judges at San Francisco Superior Court exceeds what is reflected in a report en route to Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature, Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein said.
     The report, which is prepared every two years by California's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), says the state's roughly 2,020 authorized superior court judgeships are 13 percent fewer than needed, and that current caseloads require about 260 additional judges.
     In contrast, the AOC says that San Francisco's 65 authorized judgeships are at least five too many.
     But Judge Feinstein notes that last year's budget cuts forced her court to fire commissioners whose work has since been delegated to judges.
     "Not only did we let go 10 commissioners last year, we also currently have six judicial vacancies," Feinstein said in a statement. "The actual number of judicial officers available now to handle our caseload is 47.5. That is 20 percent fewer judicial positions than our assessed judicial need identified in the AOC report and nearly 30 percent fewer than we had one year ago."
     "Reading this report leaves one with the erroneous conclusion that the San Francisco Superior Court has too many judges," she added.
     "We have judges serving in Traffic and Small Claims courts because we no longer have commissioners to perform those duties. We have closed civil trial departments because of state budget cuts. We have a judge shortage, not a judicial surplus."
     The AOC, however, highlights conditions in other parts of the state. "A significant, critical need for new judgeships in the superior courts remains," according to the new report, called the Judicial Needs Assessment.
     "As in previous updates, the greatest need can be found in moderate-sized to large courts in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, where historic underfunding and rapid population growth have outstripped growth in judicial resources," the report says.
     San Bernardino County has the greatest need in percentage terms, according to the AOC. With a need for 156 judges, but only 91 authorized seats, the superior court there is short by 65 judges, or 71 percent.
     Riverside County is in a similar position, needing roughly 138 judges, or about 55 more than authorized.
     Late last week, an AOC analyst told the Judicial Council that the report considered the average filing data for each court, and also considered how long a typical judge takes to handle any of 18 different case types.
     The biannual report to the Legislature and governor started in 2006 with the passage of California Senate Bill 56. The statute says the report must rely on a study that looks at each court's three-year average of case filings, the workload created by each case type and a ranking of courts by relative need.
     AOC analyst Leah Rose-Goodwin, who wrote this year's report, said she had incorporated technological changes and other factors that have affected how time-consuming cases are for judges.
     The latest study reflects a "greater use of e-filing and other electronic technologies that didn't exist or weren't widespread the last time the judicial workload study was conducted and we have better and more complete data reported by the courts," Rose-Goodwin said.
     She also said that asbestos cases became a new case type used this year, "in recognition of their complexity and use of judicial resources that varies from the workload required for other civil cases."
     Donna Hershkowitz, a lobbyist for the AOC, told the council that the report supports the AOC's push for new judgeship authorizations.
     Two prior lobbying efforts resulted in the authorization of 100 new judgeships, but only 50 of the positions have been funded so far, Hershkowitz said.
     Commissioner Sue Alexander of Alameda County, who is an advisory member of the council, asked Hershkowitz whether the AOC's analysis included the use by some counties of subordinate judicial officers, including commissioners.
     Hershkowitz replied: "You asked a difficult question, Commissioner Alexander. I think there's a broad recognition statewide in the Legislature that courts have been struggling to figure out how to keep their doors open."
     Courts that rely on commissioners may be in line for new judgeships, she added.
     "That would have to be part of the discussion," Hershkowitz said. "If they're effectively creating more judicial need because of laying off commissioners."