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Extra judges to help clear Riverside County backlog

District attorney says he's been pressured to avoid filing cases due to overburdened system. Strike team will help alleviate problem.

June 16, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

The overburdened court system in Riverside County will get a special strike team of judges over the next four months to help clear its mounting backlog of cases.

California Chief Justice Ronald M. George announced Friday that he planned to use his constitutional authority -- stemming from his duty to "equalize the work of the courts" -- to assign a team of as many as 12 active and retired judges to hear hundreds of backlogged criminal cases in Riverside County.

George, who heads the Judicial Council of California, said in a telephone interview Friday that Riverside County was the "poster child for the need for new judgeships" in California.

While Riverside County's population has grown by 76% in 18 years, only three judgeships have been added during that time.

The crush of criminal cases has been so severe that, at times, court administrators were forced to shut down the civil case calendar so civil judges could help clear the criminal backlog. Some county officials feared that if the backlog continued to grow, some criminal cases would have to be dismissed because of legal time constraints involving the rights of defendants.

George said he was alarmed by a letter the Judicial Council of California, the policy making body of the courts, received from an elderly Riverside County man who said the overloaded courts delayed his civil case for so long that he wondered whether he would live long enough to see the trial.

"I think the public's right to justice has been impaired by the growth in caseloads," George said. "We're really focusing on Riverside County because the situation is worse there than in any other county."

Riverside County got a reprieve in this year's state budget when it was allotted seven of 50 new judgeships, but those positions have not yet been filled and retirements of current judges are expected to add to the workload.

The Judicial Council has requested 150 new judgeships statewide over three years, and George said he hoped Riverside County would get an additional six from a 2007-2008 allotment of 50 new judgeships that is working its way through the Legislature. He also hopes the county will receive additional judgeships from the 50 requested for the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

"That will have a huge impact," said Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, who said Riverside County has seen a steep increase in the number of misdemeanor trials and a major shortage of jail beds. "It's a pretty significant situation down here."

Pacheco said several judges in the county and a number of defense attorneys have pressured him not to file misdemeanor cases against suspects "even though we know they committed crimes," he said.

The district attorney also has faced a backlash in some legal circles for resisting pressure to negotiate more plea bargains, which also would decrease the number of cases in the system.

George said he was trying to assemble a pool of about 20 retired and active judges with expertise in criminal cases to help in Riverside County -- though it is not clear where their courtrooms would be housed. From that pool, he said, about a dozen judges could be hearing cases at one time.

The chief justice said he hoped the team could make "a very significant dent in the backlog of cases" before the new judges come on board later this year.

He said the last time a team of judges was sent in to clear backlogs in some jurisdictions had been when the three-strikes law went into effect.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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