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Allocation of Judgeships Becomes Hot Potato

(CN) - Objections from judges prompted the Judicial Council's legislation committee to delay a vote Thursday on a proposal to give it the authority to decide which courts should get new judgeships.

California's trial courts are suffering from a shortage of about 270 judges, Judicial Council lobbyist Cory Jasperson told the Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee on Thursday.

Meeting by phone, the committee debated whether to move forward with legislative language that would grant the council discretion to dole out vacant judgeships.

The proposal originated with the Futures Commission, a group established by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to examine what the state's courts should like over the next 10 years. In a report to the chief, the commission proposed legislation that would allow the Judicial Council, the rule-making body for the state's courts, to "allocate vacant judgeships from courts with less judicial workload needs to courts with greater judicial workload needs."

Judge Eric Taylor of Los Angeles, attending the hearing on behalf of the California Judges Association which he heads, said he was concerned that the legislation committee might be moving too fast on an idea that will have a significant impact on the courts.

"This proposal seems to have been expedited in a way that has really gone beyond what we anticipated," he said. "It does impact, potentially, the fabric of each of our courts. It has election implications, potentially. It can impose additional challenges to courts that have open seats taken away. A lot of the folks I've talked to so far have real concerns about the speed at which this is happening and the lack of opportunity to give input."

Taylor asked the committee to put off its vote until the association he heads could discuss the proposal at its Friday meeting.

First Appellate District Judge James Humes, a member of Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee, said he'd prefer the committee act immediately to get the ball rolling on filling vacant judgeships. While Gov. Jerry Brown has already supported allocating up to five vacant judgeships in his 2016-17 budget, his proposal hardly begins to make a dent in the need. Pushing for additional legislation, either as a trailer bill to be included in this year's budget or as a separate bill, would go much further.

"I think CJA should play a role in this and they should be notified," Humes said. "But they will have an opportunity to play a role when and if the Judicial Council develops the methodology and criteria it needs to develop. Nothing is going to happen until that occurs."

Taylor said: "It's just interesting that we can't wait 48 hours for something that is going to have sweeping impact. Why can't we wait until Monday to talk about this again? I think we all should be on the same page and I was hoping I could buy a little time to have further discussion before this came out, especially since this is coming out of the committee and not the full council."

Humes reminded the committee of the governor's impending deadline for his May budget revision. "I'd like to see this get moving along, and we only have a few weeks," he said. "I wouldn't be adverse to reexamining our vote if they [CJA] come back and say we dislike this."

The rest of the committee took a more cautious approach. "It's a very important issue and I agree with it in concept, but I'd personally like to get CJA's input," Judge Gary Nadler of Sonoma County said.

Other committee members also raised objections. Judge David Buckley of Los Angeles said he had some problems with a sentence in the proposed statute that reads: "Vacant judgeships shall be allocated in accordance with methodology and criteria established by the Judicial Council."

Jasperson said the language bears no significant difference to precedent from 2006 and 2007, where the Legislature gave the council authority via changes in the government code to allocate 50 vacant judgeships, and later to convert subordinate judicial officers to judge positions. The council would likely use a similar method for determining judicial vacancies as it is currently does, according to a mandated judicial-needs assessment based on, among other things, case filings and workload.

Buckley said, "Every time there's a vacancy anywhere in the state, there has to be allocation, granted with a methodology by the council. I'm just concerned it's putting us in a corner. Every time a presiding judge is facing a vacancy there has to be a wait for the council to decide how that will be handled."

Committee member Patrick Kelly, a partner at Wilson Elsner in Los Angeles said he also had trouble with the proposal's wording. "It's a very vague standard that's being set up," he said.

In the face of these concerns, committee chair Judge Kenneth So said the committee would rework the language and reconvene on May 5.

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