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In Los Angeles County, Two Courts Are Better Than One

May 23, 1999|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner, past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn

Last June, California voters passed Proposition 220 by a margin of 2 to 1. The new law "unifies" the Municipal and Superior courts into a single entity. In Los Angeles, such court unification would make Superior and Municipal court judges even more anonymous and unaccountable than they already are. Other than Judge Lance A. Ito, it is doubtful that most people know the name of a single local judge. That may be a good thing for the judges, but it is a bad thing for the community they serve.

For unification to occur, a majority of Superior judges in a county, and a separate majority of their Municipal counterparts, must vote on whether to unify. Of California's 58 counties, only two have not voted to merge their courts: Kern and Los Angeles. (Another four counties require preclearance from the Justice Department to ensure minority group voting rights.)

Unification is supposed to increase judicial efficiency by authorizing all judges to hear all kinds of cases, and to save money through a streamlined administration. In effect, all Municipal judges would become Superior judges, and the Municipal Court would disappear, one county at a time.

All California trial-court judges must stand for election every six years. Superior judges are elected countywide and enjoy the electoral equivalent of a lifetime appointment. A Superior judge's constituency exceeds that of 42 state governors. Few challengers can afford to run against them competitively. By contrast, judges not in the vast L.A. Municipal Court can be vulnerable to a relatively small electorate. Last June, two were voted out of office.

For L.A. Superior Court judges, unification would be a mixed bag. Many Municipal judges would have far greater bench seniority than newly minted Superior ones, and seniority largely determines judicial assignments (read: working conditions). Currently, a 10-year Municipal judge elevated to Superior Court starts with no seniority in the higher court. Can the Superior and Municipal judges work out an agreement over seniority? Possibly, but why would Superior judges want to?

There are other problems. Some Municipal judges simply do not want to be Superior Court judges. The pay is the same, and while Superior judges have better benefits, the trade-off may not be worth it. For example, Malibu Municipal Judge Lawrence J. Mira runs a one-judge courthouse assisted by one full-time and two part-time court commissioners. Mira has the best judicial job in L.A. County. He lives in Malibu. He is his own presiding judge. He personally knows a fair number of the people who appear before him. He attends community meetings several times a week, whether the venue is a school, a service organization or a Cub Scout pack. In addition to being available to review search warrants 24 hours a day, Mira teaches at Pepperdine Law School.

Likely to be reelected, Mira has no incentive to become a Superior judge. If Mira were sucked into the unification tornado, some Superior presiding judge downtown could assign him to Norwalk or Pomona. The Malibu community would lose a highly motivated jurist deeply involved in the welfare of his hometown. The only possible benefit for him from unification would be a loftier title.

The true beneficiaries of unification would be L.A. Municipal or small-district judges facing an electoral challenge. Unlike small-community judges, Municipal judges in the L.A. Judicial District are largely anonymous. Their electorate spans from San Fernando to San Pedro, and from Watts to West L.A. Under these conditions, an L.A. Municipal judge can defeat virtually any electoral challenger simply by putting "Judge, Los Angeles Municipal Court," as his or her ballot identifier. These lower-court judges are mostly assembly-line workers performing a single, specialized job repeatedly.

Due to its size and caseload, the L.A. Municipal Court assigns some judges to do nothing for a year but hear "guilty" and "not guilty" pleas in arraignment courts. On another assignment, a judge will hear roughly 10 preliminary hearings a day, every day, year after year.

Downtown, roughly half the preliminary hearings involve rock cocaine. For a judge sitting on these cases, only the names of the defendants and officers change. The play's the same. Such judges favor unification because it would inject diversity into their caseload. In contrast, judges in smaller judicial districts enjoy caseload diversity but are politically vulnerable. In last June's election, for example, a black deputy district attorney defeated a white incumbent judge. Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, a former judge, backed the challenger, who won by roughly 4,000 votes out of 30,000 cast. Unfortunately, Inglewood lost a well-regarded judge to reverse a history of racism. Similarly, in El Monte, another good judge barely eked out a victory over a young, virtually unknown Latino lawyer. The difference: El Monte is Latino, the challenger is Latino, and the incumbent is not. People voted surnames.

Unification would have protected both Municipal judges, because, as Superior judges, they would have run countywide and enjoyed the blessing of anonymity. This consequence of unification would dilute minority voting strength, which has Superior judges worrying that the Justice Department would file suit under the Voting Rights Act and ask a federal judge to break the county into smaller chunks for judicial elections. Federal judges are appointed for life, but to get the job, candidates must have impeccable credentials and run the partisan gantlet of confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

The governor appoints California's judges. If no one runs against them, they are automatically elected. The only check is a governor's submission of the candidate's name to the State Bar for investigation. At the end of his last term, Gov. Pete Wilson ignored even that check, appointing judges whom the State Bar found "unqualified." Unification would help perpetuate the no-check approach for local judges.*

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