SAN FRANCISCO — Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, expressing concern that the California Supreme Court is spending half its time selecting the cases it will decide, appointed a committee of judges and lawyers on Tuesday to seek ways to streamline the court process.
The Select Committee on Supreme Court Procedures, to be led by retired state Supreme Court Justice Frank K. Richardson, was given a broad mandate to review the court's internal operations and procedural rules and come up with proposals to help speed proceedings and reduce the backlog of more than 400 cases.
The 10-member group will review procedures used by the U.S. Supreme Court and the highest courts in other states that might help in the "expeditious handling" of the California court's workload, Lucas said. An interim report is expected in January.
The chief justice, answering questions from reporters, also indicated that the court may soon issue some far-reaching decisions that will help break the logjam of more than 170 death penalty appeals.
"We are in the process of resolving some significant areas of the law which have perhaps held up that process," he said. When those questions are resolved, decisions in other such cases should "flow speedily," he said.
Although Lucas declined to discuss specific issues, there are several important capital cases pending before the court that legal authorities expect to be decided soon.
Among others, the justices are reconsidering a controversial 1983 ruling by the court under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird requiring that before a defendant can be sentenced to death, a jury must specifically find that he intended to kill his victim. Prosecutors say a reversal of that decision by the new court could avoid scores of death penalty retrials.
On other matters, Lucas voiced particular concern that the justices were spending an estimated 50% of their time examining a steady flow of non-capital appeals to determine which should be granted formal review.
"In my own personal opinion, we are probably devoting too much time on the review of petitions, as opposed to the crafting and publishing of opinions themselves," he said.
Richardson, 73, who will lead the committee, is a highly regarded, moderately conservative justice who was appointed to the court by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1974 and served for nine years. Richardson had long advocated formation of a blue-ribbon committee to study court procedures.
Other members include Judges Joseph T. Sneed and Dorothy W. Nelson of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, state Court of Appeal justices Robert Feinerman of Los Angeles and Harry W. Low of San Francisco, former U.S. Secretary of Education and federal appellate judge Shirley M. Hufstedler, legal author and attorney Bernard E. Witkin, and Donald Barrett, former principal research attorney for the state Supreme Court.
Lucas also named two court colleagues--Justices Stanley Mosk and Edward A. Panelli--to serve as advisory members.
As he spoke, Lucas stood before a chart showing the increase in the court's workload. In 1956, there were 674 petitions for hearing filed with the court; last year, the number had grown to 3,834. During that period, the seven justices issued about 150 written opinions each year.
The number of lawyers in California grew in those three decades from about 17,000 to 107,000, he noted.
The court's output has been slowed this year in a complex and time-consuming transition as three new justices appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian replaced Bird and two other court members defeated in the November election.
Four opinions in relatively minor cases have been issued since the new members of the court took office in March. In the last three months, the justices have heard arguments in 72 cases--39 of them heard but not decided by the court under Bird.
There are 418 cases that have been granted review and await court action; they include not only major death penalty cases but also disputes over the legality of drunk-driving roadblocks and the constitutionality of the state's mandatory auto insurance law.
The court, in an effort to ease its backlog, has scheduled a special calendar of cases to be heard in July. Ordinarily, the court does not hold such hearings in July or August.
The justices in recent weeks also have dismissed 15 cases the court under Bird had agreed to decide. Lucas said Tuesday that the court will continue to examine such cases to see if any others can be dismissed.
The biggest immediate problems involve the process of selecting what cases to formally review from a flow of 60 to 80 petitions a week and the process of reviewing and refining the issues in capital cases that, under state law, it must decide.