SAN FRANCISCO — Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas said Thursday that he will appoint a special commission of judges and lawyers to study new ways to streamline state Supreme Court procedures and reduce its growing backlog of nearly 400 pending cases--171 of which involve the death penalty.
Lucas, without endorsing the idea, also urged that the state Legislature give "very careful" study to a proposal to send capital cases to appellate panels for review before they go to the justices, thus easing the high court's burdens.
In his first major public remarks since assuming office Feb. 5, the chief justice said the as yet-unnamed commission will include "very distinguished" members and will be given wide latitude to investigate measures to improve the court's internal mechanisms and to trim its caseload, a task he has given top priority.
While declining to go into detail, Lucas indicated that finding a way to speed resolution of capital cases will be among the prime objectives of the special panel.
Lucas spoke to a luncheon meeting of judges, lawyers and reporters sponsored by the Bar Assn. of San Francisco the day after three new appointees to the high court by Gov. George Deukmejian were confirmed and sworn into office.
"The real challenge for the court ahead is to catch up with our backlog," the chief justice said. "It's not an unsurmountable task, but it will take a great deal of effort from each of us."
The court has decided only one case since the three justices defeated by the voters last November--Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin--left office in January.
The justices' already heavy backlog grew during the transition period after the election. The court suspended oral arguments and concentrated on deciding as many cases as possible before the three justices departed. It was able to decide 35 cases, but another 60 that had been argued remained to face reargument before the new court.
The court will resume its monthly sessions of hearing oral argument April 6, with the three new justices--John A. Arguelles, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman--sitting for the first time. A calendar of 29 cases--including 19 rearguments--will be heard during the five-day session in Los Angeles.
In his speech, Lucas acknowledged the new court will be under pressure to decide cases that have been pending for many months and even years--but sought to minimize fears that important issues might be too hastily resolved.
'A Big Backlog'
"Nothing is going to be turned out like popcorn simply because we have a big backlog," he said.
Answering questions on a wide range of subjects, Lucas also:
- Avoided being drawn into the controversy over whether Deukmejian should have named a woman to replace Bird on the court. A woman, Lucas said, would have been a "welcome addition"--but court appointments "are uniquely an executive prerogative."
- Declined to attach a label to a new high court that is widely expected to become more conservative with the emergence of a majority of five Deukmejian appointees. "I don't know where this court is going to go," he said. "These justices are all independent, strong-minded people--and I won't know (the outcome of cases) until we've gone around the conference table and recorded the votes."
- Dismissed speculation that the court, with Southern Californians in the majority, would be moving its headquarters to Los Angeles. "We're not going to move," he said. "We've been here since 1879."
Lucas urged close study of proposals that would allow state appellate justices to perform the time-consuming initial reviews of death penalty cases, which now come automatically from the trial court directly to the state Supreme Court for review.
The proposal is supported on the grounds that it would reduce the large amounts of time the justices spend poring through thousands of pages of trial transcripts, briefs and other documents. But it is opposed by many judges and lawyers who fear that it would simply add to the delay and burden appellate courts.
One measure pending before the Legislature--which Lucas neither supported nor opposed--would change the law to give the high court discretion to decide whether to review a death penalty ruling by an appeal court.
Questioning of Jurors
Lucas also urged consideration of another proposal that would have judges conduct the questioning of prospective jurors. Such a system is followed by federal courts but in California questioning is done by attorneys--and critics say this is the primary reason jury selection takes weeks in some cases.
The chief justice said the change might save "10% to 15%" of the time being expended in the courts--but acknowledged the proposal has met stiff opposition from lawyers. "I know I'll get lots of hate mail on this," he said with a smile.