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Judge rejects notion that he lacks power to reduce criminal trial backlog in San Francisco

The San Francisco County Superior Court says it can’t be sued over an extended backlog that has delayed hundreds of criminal trials because only judges overseeing individual cases can set trial schedules.

(CN) — A California judge on Thursday rejected claims that he can’t order a neighboring county to take action to reduce a criminal trial backlog because that would impermissibly meddle in another court system's cases.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Edward Weil, who oversees a lawsuit claiming San Francisco systematically violates defendants’ speedy trial rights, told the San Francisco court's lawyer that plaintiffs aren’t asking him to interfere in individual cases.

“They’re very clear,” Weil said. “They’re not trying to get anybody’s case dismissed. They’re not trying to get anyone released from custody. They want more criminal trials.”

San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju and four city taxpayers sued the Superior Court in September, claiming the court’s presiding Judge Samuel Feng and CEO T. Michael Yuen refused to prioritize criminal trials over other matters as required by state law. They claim the court has caused a “humanitarian crisis” and forced more than 400 criminal defendants to languish in jail or remain subject to court oversight long after the deadline for a speedy trial has passed.

In October, the lawsuit was transferred from San Francisco Superior Court to nearby Contra Costa County. On Thursday, Judge Weil heard arguments on San Francisco Superior’s motion to dismiss the case.

The court’s lawyer, Douglas Collodel, said any attempt to make his client take action like opening more courtrooms would impermissibly interfere in the decisions of dozens of judges overseeing hundreds of criminal cases in San Francisco.

“It would be affecting how those cases are being conducted without balancing the individual factors in that case,” Collodel said.

“I don’t think it would be,” Weil replied. “Let’s say some relief was issued and more courtrooms are made available. The person in that trial would still have to file their motion, and the judge would decide based on various factors.”

In its demurer motion, San Francisco Superior argued there is only one place where a defendant’s right to a speedy trial can be vindicated — in criminal court. It noted that four criminal defendants referenced in the lawsuit already filed speedy trial motions in their cases. Each of those motions was denied, and a higher court rejected two appeals challenging those denials.

“The criminal defendants whose speedy trial rights are implicated have an adequate remedy at law,” the court argued in its motion.

Representing the plaintiffs, attorney Monique Olivier said the lawsuit doesn't just seek to vindicate the rights of criminal defendants. It also seeks to stop illegal expenditures of public money under a state law that gives taxpayers the right to sue government entities.

“We said there’s illegal expenditure of funds in the way the court is not giving priority to criminal cases,” Olivier told the judge.

Olivier cited California Penal Code Section 1050, which requires courts to prioritize criminal trials. According to her, taxpayers have the right to sue the court for using public money in a way that violates the law.

The San Francisco Superior Court maintains that court administrators can’t be sued by taxpayers in the same way other government agencies can because the court must exercise discretion when it decides how to allocate resources.

“There are no ministerial acts that are involved here,” Collodel said. “They are discretionary acts.”

Weil replied that a well-pleaded claim that the court abuses its discretion could allow the case to move forward but added he’s not prepared to rule on that issue until a later stage of litigation.

“We get cases involving a lot of government officials where they’re highly discretionary but the abuse of discretion is pleaded,” Weil said. “As long as the respondent provides a rational explanation of what they’ve done, they ultimately prevail.”

Olivier argued that when it comes to taxpayer lawsuits, the superior court is just like any other government agency that can be sued in state court.

“Just like with the Department of Corrections or DMV, it’s really no different,” she said. “You’re looking at the ministerial acts of court officers enforcing or not enforcing sections of the penal code.”

According to Olivier, tons of data on criminal trial delays in San Francisco show the court has a “systemic problem” when it comes to respecting defendants’ speedy trial rights and prioritizing criminal trials over other cases.

As of Aug. 30, at least 429 defendants’ cases had dragged on longer than the 60-day limit for trials to occur after a plea is entered. Among those, 178 defendants were being held in jail while awaiting trial. The Public Defender's Office says most pretrial detainees are forced to stay in cramped cells for 23 hours a day with no access to classes, counseling services or library books, due to stringent rules put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Judge Weil said he will issue a ruling on the superior court’s motion to dismiss the speedy trials lawsuit within the next few days.

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