Michael Planet knows it won't be easy stepping in behind Sheila Gonzalez, a virtual superstar in the world of court administration who left Ventura County's top job for a state post last month. But he has a plan.
"My job will be to just sort of stay out of the way, at least until I figure out what's going on," he said.
Those who know him say the comment is typical of Planet, 45, whose teddy bear exterior belies the brains and experience required to keep the complex court operations humming along.
Ask him about his top accomplishments over a legal career that spans 25 years and he hems and haws. He acknowledges, eventually, that in his 10 years as court administrator for King County Superior Court in Seattle, a lot of things were accomplished.
"But it was more as a team," Planet said. "I'd hate to say, 'I did this,' or 'I did that.' "
Still, while at the helm of Washington's largest court system, serving about 2 million people, Planet slashed case backlog from 65,000 to 20,000, beefed up court security and introduced such innovative ideas as counseling for jurors who serve on gruesome cases.
"Mike made us a cohesive group," said Claudia Olney, an administrator who worked for Planet.
"He did things to help us realize we're all in this together."
His approachable style combined with a sophisticated knowledge of the courts is what motivated Gonzalez to call Planet when she decided to leave her post after 14 years. The two knew each other from years serving together in professional associations. During her years with Ventura, Gonzalez started a free legal clinic in the courthouse, put kiosks in malls so traffic tickets could be paid electronically and installed a video network allowing judges to arraign jailed defendants via television screen. She also computerized court filings, many of which can be accessed over the Internet.
Gonzalez's reputation made her the choice for the state's first regional courts administrative director, giving her sweeping responsibilities in 10 counties in Central and Southern California.
As she prepared to leave, Gonzalez called Planet, whom she knew had a solid reputation of his own.
"Michael has the energy and the intelligence and knows the court system," Gonzalez said. "He has a big-picture perspective. And Seattle is considered a progressive and well-run court. I think he's going to establish himself very quickly and build on what we were able to create."
Presiding Judge Bruce Clark screened about half a dozen candidates for the position. He liked the fact that Planet respected Ventura County's court system but wouldn't be overshadowed by his predecessor's accomplishments. "His vision meshed with what we had here," Clark said. "He has comparable skills [to Gonzalez's], but Mike is unique in his own way and we expect he'll do a great job."
The position puts Planet in charge of a $35-million budget, the same size as that of King County. But Planet will answer to only 27 judges, compared with 51 in his former job.
The job marks a return to California for Planet. He attended the fourth and fifth grades in San Bernardino before his family moved to Bowie, Md., where he stayed through high school.
He earned a bachelor's degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in administration of justice, a new program designed to train students in the fledgling career of court administration, from American University in Washington, D.C.
Planet said his passion for the courts developed during his undergraduate years, while working for a state legislator who was a local attorney. "I fell in love with the environment," Planet said. "I loved reading in the news what I was seeing in the courtroom. It was exciting."
After earning his master's degree, Planet went to work as an assistant staff director for the American Bar Assn., where he helped develop ways to speed up the civil court process. In those days, Planet said, it was typical for a common auto injury case to take three years to get to court. Now, the average is less than 18 months, Planet said.
He served as the deputy court administrator for the Superior Court of Arizona before assuming the top post for King County Superior Court in 1991.
While in Seattle, Planet helped computerize court filings and hired the first human resources director to ensure that the courts were recruiting the most talented employees. He also implemented the county's first courthouse security after a shooting that left a pregnant woman and two friends dead at the hands of her estranged husband.
Planet said he created a pilot program that offered counseling for jurors who served on high-profile criminal cases. "As a juror, you look at pictures and evidence that can be pretty gruesome," Planet said. "So we started offering mental health professionals to help jurors handle the stress that comes as a result of a trial."
As much as he's looking forward to digging in to his new job, Planet said he's equally eager to embrace the California culture. It wasn't hard, he said, to leave behind Seattle's rainy season, which stretches to about eight months a year.
The Golden State's climate is a much better place to practice his major talent outside the courthouse--barbecuing. He's also a guitar player and says he may take his wife of eight years out to a few of the county's pubs, where he hopes to perform a few tunes.
"I think this is going to work out," Planet said. "Here I am at this beautiful courthouse with progressive-thinking judges. What a great place to work and in a pretty part of the world."