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Lawyers, Clients Vent Over Clogged Courts

Thursday, June 12, 2008

  • The Daily Journal

Imperial County Judges Respond to Backlog by Holding Criminal Trials in Afternoons

Tom Kurtz / for the Daily Journal

San Diego defense attorney Mary Frances Prevost was steamed after her client, Ernest J. Sala Jr.'s, DUI trial was stretched from three or four days to evenings spanning three or four weeks to accommodate clogged courts in Imperial County.
By Pat Broderick
Daily Journal Staff Writer
This article appears on Page 1

SAN DIEGO - San Diego defense attorney Mary Frances Prevost was steamed.
"I am supposed to be trying a DUI case in Imperial County," she complained late last month. "But what is supposed to be a three- to four-day trial is going to end up being a three- to four-week trial. Why? Because Imperial County courts are so congested, they can only try cases a little bit at a time because judges are wearing too many hats."
To deal with the clogged dockets, the judges have instituted the practice of reserving afternoons only for criminal trials, leaving their mornings free to handle other matters on their busy calendars.
But while the setup may help the judges, it has wreaked havoc on lawyers and their clients, lawyers say.
Complaints range from lawyers having to make frequent commutes to Imperial County from San Diego, where many them work, to forcing expert witnesses, who often are paid a fixed fee, return to court day after day, to clients having to stay overnight in motels, putting their jobs on the line.
Prevost's client, Ernest J. Sala Jr., had to drive all the way from the Oregon border, where he lives.
The defense attorney filed a motion, saying that Sala was being denied his right to a speedy and continuous trial and asking that an independent judge, outside Imperial County, decide the case.
Last week, Harry F. Brauer, acting presiding judge of the Imperial County appellate division, granted a stay of Sala's trial, while ordering a three-judge panel of retired judges to consider Prevost's motion. Sala v. Superior Court, CCM17143-0301 (Cal. App. 4th Dist., filed June 5, 2008).
The district attorney has 30 days to file a response.
"I wasn't expecting it," said Prevost, who had been preparing for another day in court. "Mr. Sala got in his truck and is going home."
Jose O. Guillen, court executive officer, said that Brauer's stay is "an unusual action." But, he said, he doesn't expect Prevost's action to spur similar moves.
If it did, Guillen said, it could have a great impact on how the court handles its caseload.
"It may require the court to regroup and go to the Judicial Council and say, 'We are doing the best we can. What say you all? We should have more judges and facilities. When can you build them?'" Guillen said.
Since 1990, Imperial County's population has swelled from 110,000 to 180,000. Guillen said that number is projected to rise to 311,000 by 2022.
In his state of the court address this year, Presiding Judge Donal B. Donnelly noted that his court will need more than 21 judges by 2022 to serve the growing population. Nine judges serve on the bench now, but no new judgeships have been earmarked.
The only immediate relief on the horizon, court officials say, is a proposed $5 billion bond measure to fund construction of major capital improvements. The bill passed the state Senate last month, 28-8.
If successful, Imperial County would be green-lighted for a new El Centro family law courthouse, housing four courtrooms, with an estimated cost of $49.4 million.
The added courtrooms, could help to consolidate caseloads in the county's three courthouses in El Centro, Brawley and Calexico, thus relieving judges from having to shuttle from one courthouse to another, and saving untold hours.
Civil trials have not been affected, said Guillen said. Civil cases, Guillen said, are "more manageable and predictable," than the criminal cases, where "they are at the mercy of new filings and the attorneys."
Meanwhile, criminal defense lawyers say their clients are paying the price, with the half-day trial policy.
But Donnelly said he doesn't believe changing the schedule to full-day trials would help. In fact, he said, letting judges handle their calendars in the morning actually relieves congestion because it gives defense attorneys and prosecutors an opportunity to negotiate pleas, and jurors aren't sitting around waiting to be called.
"I used to have a policy of trying to get the jurors in as soon as I could and would race through the morning calendar to start at 10," Donnelly said. "We didn't accomplish anything. We couldn't resolve cases, and the jurors were kept waiting in the hall."
Donnelly said he understands the frustration, especially for out-of-town counsel, who have to travel long distances and make living arrangements.
"I wish that we had the luxury of allowing judges to devote their entire time to trials on a day-long basis," he said. "But, unfortunately, there are not enough judicial officers to do that."
Still, lawyers say that the compromise tends to lead to longer trials, which sometimes is worse.
"The longer a trial goes, the more likely you will lose jurors, and that can result in using up alternate jurors, and a mistrial might have to be declared," Breeze said.
Donnelly conceded that this could happen, but not often, he said.
"We may risk losing jurors on long, complicated felonies or civil cases," Donnelly said. "I can understand that fear if a two-week trial becomes a four-week trial. But I don't see that happening on standard cases."
He added, "We haven't had to dismiss any case due to availability of courtrooms or judges.
According to the Judicial Council's most recent statistics, for 2005-2006, Imperial County ranks second in the state for the number of case filings - more than 7,200 per judge - and in dispositions, indicating that, "They are keeping up somehow," said Philip Carrizosa, council spokesman.
While Guillen said he doesn't keep tabs on individual caseloads per judge, he said that case filings have spiked in the last four years, with an overall increase of about 30 percent.
In 2006, he said, there was "a huge jump," from 65,500 cases filed in 2005 to 82,000, most of that attributed to a rise in traffic and criminal matters.
Meanwhile, attorneys trying cases in Imperial County are growing impatient.
"I may have to tell experts to stick around two days to testify," said John Breeze, a partner with the El Centro law firm of Plourd & Breeze. "A lot of those who get appointed to testify get a fixed sum for one day. They don't want to have to spend two days on the witness stand in Imperial County, because they might have problems getting compensated."
Clients end up paying the price, too, noted Robert Espinoza, a sole practitioner in El Centro.
"It's difficult for a man to sit there and pay an attorney to try a case, when they're paying a certain amount per day, and the court says it's only going to give you half a day, making it seven or eight days, instead of three days," Espinoza said.
Prevost can attest to her and her client's hardships.
Sala, who lives near the Oregon border, has had to pay for motels and food during his extended stay - not to mention the extra money Prevost herself has had to spend in gas for the multiple 230-mile round trips, she said.
"He can't work, he can't go home," Prevost said of her client before the stay was issued. "It's debilitating."
Heather Trapnell, a deputy district attorney in El Centro who previously worked in Riverside County, where the courts face an even greater overcrowding problem, conceded that full-day trials would be more efficient. But, she added, "The courts are doing the best they can with the resources they have."

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