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Post-Election: More Order in the Courts

November 13, 1994

The resounding passage of Proposition 184, the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" initiative, is only one of the new electoral changes that will affect the courts of California. Two other measures that were on the Nov. 8 ballot--and perhaps some proposals that weren't--also portend major shifts in the way our trial and appellate courts operate and, possibly, who sits on those courts.

To be sure, the passage of Proposition 184, following enactment of the virtually identical "three-strikes" law last March, means that state courts will be preoccupied as never before with criminal trials and appeals. The law enacted earlier this year, which mandates terms of 25 years to life in state prison for those convicted of a third felony, has already discouraged plea bargains, resulting in many more trials.

In the Downtown courthouse of the Los Angeles Superior Court, judges who hear civil matters are already postponing civil cases so they can hear the increasing volume of criminal matters that, by statute, must be taken up more quickly. By December, court officials predict, fully half of the Downtown civil courtrooms will be assigned to hear criminal cases. Civil litigants, no matter how pressing their claims, will have to wait, possibly for years, for an open courtroom.

The answer, if there is one, to this gathering storm is greater efficiency and more judges. But given the huge costs of "three-strikes" enforcement, including outlays for prison construction and operation, the addition of new judges is unlikely. Streamlining court operation alone cannot compensate for the added caseload generated by the "three-strikes" measures. But some efficiencies have been accomplished and more are possible.

Proposition 191, also passed last Tuesday, will eliminate the state's few remaining justice courts and merge them with the municipal courts. The justice courts are largely an artifact of a time when California was a much more rural state. The merger could result in better use of judges' time.

A more ambitious and more promising plan involves unification of all trial courts; municipal courts would become superior courts. Such a step, which other states have taken, would require voter approval. The Legislature last summer considered letting the voters decide this issue but shrank from the opportunity. It should revisit the issue soon.

Voters last week clearly signaled their impatience with the state's outdated and ineffective system of disciplining judges. The overwhelming passage of Proposition 190 ensures greater public participation and accountability in that process.

More changes should follow. Some concern so-called merit selection of judges, which, generally speaking, means removing politics as much as possible from the process of selecting judges, focusing instead on objective criteria and the candidates' judicial philosophies. These proposals are still a long way from implementation but they are worth exploring as we enter the "three strikes" era.

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