SACRAMENTO — Legislation that would have added judges to overworked trial court benches in Orange County and 19 other counties appears to have been killed here this week in an election-year maneuver engineered by Assembly Democrats.
Democratic leaders, including Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), acknowledged that they were responsible for derailing legislation that would have expanded Superior and Municipal courts throughout the state.
But the lawmakers admitted to no political motives.
Local government lobbyists here said they are puzzled by the stalemate. They said the reasons for it could be anything from disagreements between Democrats and Gov. George Deukmejian over funding reforms for trial courts to suggestions that the Democrats were punishing the Republican governor for his involvement in the unprecedented campaign to topple Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other high court justices.
California counties, citing many years of civil case backlogs and overworked criminal panels, were asking for 55 new Superior and 20 new Municipal court judges. The Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the state Supreme Court, says the court systems need nearly twice that many new judges.
Plan Turned Down
But after legislative negotiators came close to reaching compromises this week on how many judges would be approved and which counties would get them, the Democratic leaders decided there would be none.
"What they told me was that they do not agree with the formula that the Judicial Council uses to determine the number of judges a district needs, and they did not feel they had time to do their own study," said Sen. Jim Ellis (R-San Diego).
"My personal opinion is that they didn't want the governor to get the appointments before the election," added Ellis, who headed a conference committee on the Municipal Court system, which broke up this week without reaching an agreement.
A separate conference committee on Superior Court expansion that was to be led by Assemblyman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton) never held a public meeting.
While there have been times in the past when the Legislature has delayed court-expansion legislation to deny appointments to a governor, almost no one here believes that Democrat Tom Bradley will win in November and replace Deukmejian next year.
Commenting on the stalemate over judges, one high-level Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, said: "In the last week (of the legislative session), things get killed and resurrected around here for a lot of insane reasons, some of which we'll never know."
Alan Slater, executive officer of the Orange County Superior Court, said the decision to grant no new judges this year is a major disappointment for the county's judges.
"I sure hate to think about it. . . . I sure hope something is worked out," Slater said.
Criminal Cases Rise
Orange County, like most urban counties, is "experiencing a very significant increase" in criminal cases, Slater said. When judges are busy meeting statutory deadlines in criminal cases, delays in handling civil cases continue to grow and grow, he said.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors had wanted to add six new judges to its 54-judge Superior Court early next year. The Judicial Council--which considers manpower, case backlogs and actual filings in its annual statewide study of court needs--says Orange County could use nine new Superior Court judges. The county was not asking for new judges for any of its five Municipal Court districts.
Los Angeles County was asking for 28 new Superior Court judges and two for its Municipal Courts.
Each year, legislative battles over new judges is one of the most intense of the end-of-session fights, particularly among heavily populated counties. Few counties ever receive all the new judges they request, and even fewer receive all the new judges the Judicial Council says they need.
For the past several years, Assembly Democrats have had their own formula for determining the need for new judges, and they have relied more on it than the one used by the Judicial Council.
One lingering point of contention between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Republican governor has been funding for trial courts. Although the state pays judges' salaries, counties bear 90% of the operating costs for trial courts.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill by Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove) calling for most of the operating costs for trial courts to be shifted from counties to the state.
No Money in Bill
But the bill contained no money to finance the change, and Deukmejian, upon signing it, said he would approve funding for the shift only when the Legislature enacted other reforms to cut down court costs--including smaller juries, streamlined jury selection procedures and videotaped transcripts.