Judicial candidates for one opening on the Orange County Superior Court and three Municipal Court judgeships are in the unusual position of campaigning for designated seats that would be eliminated under a proposal to merge the two courts.
Proposed by state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), the constitutional amendment could create a "super-court" system that would consolidate the municipal courts, which mainly handle misdemeanor and civil cases, and the superior courts, which handle felony trials and civil cases.
Some studies estimate the measure would save $22 million annually in California.
Supporters and detractors agree that its passage would amount to a judicial revolution that will change the way justice is delivered in the state.
The proposal is still being fine-tuned and will not go on the statewide ballot until November, said Karin Caves, Lockyer's spokeswoman. But its implications provide a controversial backdrop for the June 7 judicial elections in Orange County.
Most of the nine local judicial candidates say they will support the merger if it aims at increasing efficiency and productivity while also saving money.
"It's anticipated that (the court merger proposal) is going to be a major cost saver and I don't think you can be against that," said Mission Viejo attorney John C. Connolly, who is challenging South County Municipal Judge Pamela L. Iles. "There is a lot of administrative duplication going on."
But Iles said the proposal will be a disaster and plans to fight it every step of the way. The court system needs to increase its efficiency, she said, but creating a countywide district court will result in more cumbersome bureaucracy and strip local residents of control when it comes to voting for judges.
"There has never been a bureaucracy grown, conceived or bloomed that didn't end up serving itself first," Iles said. "I would end up getting a raise if (the proposal passes), but I think the average citizen will lose."
The merger would boost municipal judges' salary to that of the Superior Court level, and give all judges the power to handle all cases countywide, Caves said. Salaries for municipal judges start at $95,214, while starting pay for Superior Court judges is $104,262.
Supporters say the measure would eliminate administrative duplication and improve court access for citizens. It would also allow municipal judges to help with the caseloads facing the superior courts, they say.
Gary Patrick Ryan and Barbara (Tam) Nomoto, Orange County municipal judges in Santa Ana, are running for a seat on the Orange County Superior Court.
Ryan said he is concerned that Municipal Court cases will get "lost" in a merger and noted that many municipal judges already assist the Superior Court bench.
"There are some areas of concern, but the concept of increasing efficiency is a good one," he said.
"There are some very good reasons for it, in the sense that court congestion and Superior Court caseloads must be addressed," said Nomoto, who added that she wants to study the final proposal before deciding whether to endorse it.
Dan C. Dutcher, a municipal judge in Westminster who is running against prosecutor Caryl Lee and Seal Beach attorney Barry S. Brown, said he sees firsthand the duplication in Orange County's courts.
"You have people in the courts who do nothing but assign cases to open courts that are available. And you have people doing that in the five municipal courts and in the Superior Court," said Dutcher, who supports the proposal. "If that were centralized in one location, that would be much more efficient."
Lee said a merger has the potential to save money.
"The system needs to be streamlined so cases are getting to court faster and are being heard faster," she said. "As it is, cases get transferred from courtroom to courtroom, judge to judge. It seems wasteful. I'd like to see some changes."
Brown said he wants more efficiency, but has concerns that the merger could dilute voting powers of minorities if judges are elected countywide.
"I don't think you can oppose something that would make the court system more efficient, but not if it's going to have an effect that is harmful," Brown said. "We don't want a situation where the cure is worse than the disease."
Claude E. Whitney, a municipal judge in Santa Ana who is being challenged by Yorba Linda attorney Dennis Patrick O'Connell, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on the merger.
Whitney is facing misconduct charges filed by the state Commission on Judicial Performance stemming from allegations that he routinely denied attorneys to defendants appearing in his court and violated other constitutional rights. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is also reviewing allegations against Whitney, who has denied any wrongdoing.
O'Connell said he supports the measure.
"I don't see any downside to any of this," O'Connell said. "It will save money in the long run. There is no reason to have a Superior Court and a Municipal Court, when you can have one court doing the same job."
The Orange County Bar Assn. does not endorse judicial candidates but polls its members for recommendations. Of nearly 6,000 bar members, 691 responded. The results were released last week, but many bar members said they did not know enough about the candidates to respond.
In the survey:
* 220 respondents said Whitney was qualified, while 174 found O'Connell qualified.
* 320 respondents said Iles was qualified, while 86 found Connolly qualified.
* 429 respondents said Nomoto was qualified, while 379 found Ryan qualified.
* 285 respondents said Dutcher was qualified, while 71 found Lee qualified and 19 found Brown qualified.