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Salary Protest Clogs County Courts

Dissatisfied with their pay, San Bernardino County attorneys file motions to prolong hearings. The system may need state help.

October 05, 2005|Ashley Powers and Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writers

San Bernardino County prosecutors and public defenders are clogging the already overburdened county court system with a flood of legal proceedings to protest stalled salary negotiations.

The disruption could force the court to halt all civil and family law cases, to allow those judges to hear criminal cases, or force the state to send in retired judges to help alleviate the backlog, court officials said.

The protest began last week, when attorneys from the county district attorney's office and public defender's office started filing motions that prolonged routine hearings or pushed for speedy preliminary hearings, resulting in a glut of time-consuming cases that are usually waived or handled expeditiously.

"We can't dictate how the lawyers decide to work their cases," said Tressa Kentner, San Bernardino County Superior Court executive officer. "It's not in a crisis mode yet, but we're seeing that in more and more of our courtrooms, attorneys are taking their case to the fullest ends instead of abbreviating the process."

The prosecutors and public defenders said they were protesting the salary disparity with attorneys at the San Bernardino County counsel office, who handle administrative cases and have a slightly higher pay scale.

"The salary difference between someone handling a murder case and someone in county counsel working a code enforcement case -- to tell a property owner he has too many pigs on his property -- is $36,600 a year," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Colclough. "Which case does our community think is more important to handle: the fender-benders that county counsel deals with, or the rapists, robbers and murderers we face? That's why morale is suffering."

County negotiators and representatives of the San Bernardino County Public Attorneys Assn., a union that represents about 300 prosecutors and public defenders, last month hit a stalemate during salary negotiations after months of talks. The county recently offered to gradually raise top public defenders and prosecutors' salaries from $116,979 to $129,697.

"We think we made a very fair proposal," said Bob Windle, the county's chief negotiator. "I suppose they were disappointed."

The public attorneys, who are working on a three-year contract that expired in June, say they want a top salary of $139,205, similar to that of deputy county counsels, who have a top salary of $132,308, Windle said.

The union and the county will soon turn to a mediator to resolve the contract issues, Windle said.

The labor action, which was first reported in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, has only added to the woes of San Bernardino County Superior Court judges, who handle the highest caseload in the state, according to a recent Judicial Council of California study.

County judges tackle an average of 6,000 cases per year, compared with a statewide average of 4,000, according to the study, based on caseloads in fiscal year 2002-03.

The situation could force Peter Norell, the presiding judge of San Bernardino County Superior Court, to free up judges by halting all civil and family law cases in the county. Kentner said no such action was imminent and there was "no talk of doing so."

Under the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants have the right to a speedy trial, and their cases must be dismissed if that right is violated. There are no time limits on civil or family law cases.

However, Kentner said there is no threat of "dismissing any cases," adding that court officials can ask the state for help.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts, based in San Francisco, runs a program in which retired judges hear cases in backlogged systems. The county where the judges are sent pays for staffing and security during hearings.

The state could also ask judges from other counties to hear cases, though San Bernardino County's neighbors "are just as strapped as they are," said Ron Overholt, the state Administrative Office chief deputy director.

In Riverside County last year, civil cases were briefly suspended so a backlog of criminal cases could progress.

Overholt said he was surprised at the San Bernardino County public attorneys' tactics.

"It seems their issue is with the county, not with the courts," he said.

San Bernardino County Assistant District Attorney Michael Risley said he knows of "no specific instance where any of our prosecutors have done anything voluntarily to slow things down."

However, some prosecutors said they are leaving plea bargain offers on the table to generate more court hearings, and requesting that probation reports be delivered sooner. Similarly, public defenders are asking judges for a full reading of charges, rights and probation terms.

District Attorney Michael Ramos sent an e-mail to all of his prosecutors last week advising them to "be cognizant of the clients we serve: the victims, law enforcement and our community."

"We support our attorneys' quest to reach parity with their neighboring prosecuting office, but we don't want this to rise to the level where criminals are not being held accountable and victims are being denied justice," Risley said.

County spokesman David Wert said no judges had complained to the county about a backlog, and "whatever action the attorneys are taking are only affecting the courts. It's really not impacting the county position in any way."

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