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San Francisco must face lawsuit over criminal trial delays

The California Court of Appeals overturned a judge's decision that one superior court couldn't order another superior court to take any action.

(CN) — The California Superior Court in San Francisco must face a lawsuit that seeks to reduce a backlog of criminal cases that at one point left more than 400 defendants jailed or subject to court oversight after their deadlines for a speedy trial passed.

The California Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned a judge who had thrown out the case after concluding, based on a precedent that barred a challenge in an individual case, that one superior court doesn't have the power to make another superior court do or refrain from doing anything.

That precedent didn't apply to the taxpayers' lawsuit against the San Francisco court, the appellate court said in a unanimous decision, because they didn't seek to review, revise or reverse a decision in an individual criminal case. Instead they challenged the court's decisions regarding allocation of judges, courtrooms and other resources, which apply to all the criminal cases before it.

"Plaintiffs have neither the desire nor the ability to intervene in the underlying criminal proceedings and have disavowed any intent to modify any order or judgment entered in a criminal case," Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jenna Whitman, who was assigned to the appellate panel, wrote in the decision. "And contrary to defendants’ assertions, the sought-after relief does not threaten to upset individual, fact-specific, discretionary decisions on speedy trial motions in individual criminal cases."

A spokesman for the San Francisco Superior Court said in a statement that the court is committed to fair and prompt handling of all cases.

"It will continue to send criminal cases to trial in a timely manner based on the priorities set out by the Legislature and the appellate courts," according to the statement. "The Superior Court is reviewing the decision by the Court of Appeal and considering its options, but because the request for comment involves matters that are the subject of pending litigation, the court cannot comment further at this time."

San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju and four city taxpayers brought the lawsuit in 2012, claiming the court was systematically violating defendants’ rights by failing to take common sense steps to alleviate a bottleneck brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the time the suit was filed, at least 429 people’s 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 said most pretrial detainees were 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.

Raju and the other plaintiffs sought a writ of mandate requiring the court to prioritize criminal cases over civil matters, expedite criminal proceedings and make all non-specialized courtrooms at the Civic Center Courthouse available for criminal trials. They also requested an order that would force the court to adopt a plan for eliminating the backlog of criminal cases.

The case was transferred to a court in nearby Martinez after the judges for the San Francisco court all recused themselves.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Edward Weil, at a hearing on San Francisco court's demurrer to the claims, had appeared to reject the idea that he couldn’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.

However, the judge ultimately concluded that its “lack of authority to issue any relief directed at another superior court judge is fatal to all of [plaintiffs’] claims, and cannot be remedied by any amendment.”

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Categories / Appeals, Courts, Criminal, Regional

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