Thursday, June 10, 2004
Lichtman Urges Group Forum for APJ Candidates, Backs Elections to Choose Supervising Judges
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman, who is running for assistant presiding judge, has said that as presiding judge he would defer to the judges in branch courts and departments in selecting supervising judges.
Lichtman told the MetNews he would like to see a forum or debate at which he and his two opponents, Judges J. Stephen Czuleger and Mary Thornton House, would appear together.
Both ideas received a cool reception from Lichtman’s opponents. House and Czuleger suggested the proposal regarding supervising judges would violate state court rules.
House said she would have “no objection” to an event involving all three candidates, though she said she saw no necessity for one. Czuleger said he would “consider” participating if a forum were arranged, but said it would be “inconvenient” for the court’s over 400 judges.
All three candidates have been informally visiting branch courts and contacting colleagues about the race, but all said they are not distributing materials beyond the letters announcing their candidacies. Voting will be in October, and official nomination papers are not due until September.
Though additional candidates could emerge—Lichtman said he would “welcome” more contestants—all three said they were unaware of any other judge who plans to run.
Lichtman said his plan regarding supervising judges is part of an effort he would make to “decentralize” court management if he became presiding judge. If tradition is followed, the judge elected APJ this year will be elected to a two-year term as presiding judge without opposition in 2006, serving as the court’s leader during 2007 and 2008.
Under his plan, Lichtman said, as presiding judge he would “give up the prerogative” of choosing supervising judges, allowing branch courts and departments to conduct elections for the positions. If a rule change were necessary to permit that, he said, he would “definitely be in the forefront” of seeking one.
But he pointed out it would also be possible for the presiding judge to informally solicit the preferences of judges as to the colleague they would like to see supervising them and to make that appointment.
In either case, Lichtman said, he would commit to not removing the supervising judges chosen through that process.
The benefit of his proposal, Lichtman said, is that it “insulates that person from any kind of worries about displeasing the administration” and “precludes cronyism.”
Lichtman was himself removed as supervising judge of the complex court program by Judge Robert A. Dukes in July after he criticized the use of statistics in measuring judicial productivity and suggested that fast-track rules were leading to the use of inappropriate case-management techniques in some courtrooms.
Czuleger said that he agreed a presiding judge should select supervising judges who have the respect of the colleagues who will serve under them, but contended Lichtman’s plan would run afoul of Rule 6.603 of the California Rules of Court.
“It’s a nice concept, but the problem with it is it violates the state Rules of Court,” Czuleger declared.
Rule 6.603 provides that the presiding judge “has ultimate authority to make judicial assignments” and “must” appoint supervising judges and assign other administrative roles.
Appointing supervising judges is “one of those things that still falls on the shoulders of the presiding judge to decide,” Czuleger said, adding that Lichtman’s proposal struck him as a “subterfuge” and a “scheme for violating the rules of court.”
House expressed a similar view. Any “formal election process would be fraught with all kinds of minefields,” she declared, adding:
“It’s absolutely important that supervising judges reflect the philosophies of the presiding judge. Appointing them is probably one of the more critical things a presiding judge does.”
APJ election campaigning has traditionally been informal and low key, and a forum or debate would be a marked departure from recent practice, though court unification in 2000 nearly doubled the number of judges on the Superior Court.
Judge Gergory C. O’Brien, the immediate past president of the California Judges Association, said the court remains a “very collegial” body despite its larger size.
“Most high schools have more spirited races for student body president,” he commented.
By calling for a public forum, committing himself to a novel approach to court administration, and criticizing the way in which statistics are being used, Lichtman has sharply distinguished himself from his two opponents. Neither Czuleger nor House was able to identify similar “issues” that set them apart from one another, and both said they expect their colleagues to vote based more on an evaluation of the candidates’ backgrounds, abilities and experience than on articulated differences in their visions for the court.
Neither was willing to join Lichtman in criticizing the way statistics on case dispositions are currently used in managing the court.
House said the issue has rarely come up in her discussions with colleagues and was “not in the top three” areas of concern for her in the campaign.
“It’s not an issue that I personally perceive as overriding when you’re dealing with budget cuts and closing of courtrooms,” she commented, adding that the Los Angeles court ranks “number one in case processing for a large court and five or six overall in the state, so we’re definitely doing something right.”
Statistics showing the court’s productivity can be helpful in justifying the court’s budget and resisting efforts to cut it, House said.
“I’ve never found the statistics to be a particular burden,” he said. Few judges, he asserted, feel pressured by statistics.
Statistical measures of productivity can demonstrate that the court is “really an efficient operation,” Czuleger said. “If you look at our statistics, we deserve a lot more. We have so many unmet needs.”
Budget cuts have closed courtrooms and forced staff reductions, hampering the court’s productivity, he asserted.
“Paperwork is just slowing down,” he said. “Judges are not getting the pleadings as quickly as they used to. The employees are at the breaking point, many of them. Statistics are the only way to show that.”
Lichtman expressed concern that his point about the use of statistics has been misunderstood.
“Statistics have to be kept and they should be kept,” he said. What he opposes, Lichtman explained, is the “dissemination” of statistics purporting to reflect the productivity of individual judges.
That, he said, “naturally breeds or tends to create a competitiveness.”
“By driving case management toward the statistics, it puts us on a potential collision course with the bar,” Lichtman asserted, creating a danger that judges will feel pressured to dispose of matters without “giving each case its accorded due.”
Lichtman declined to comment on reports that his personal relations with Czuleger have become strained during the campaign, though he did say that he believed Czuleger, who was the last candidate to enter the race, had made a commitment to back him.
“He had supported me and told me he would support me,” Lichtman said.
Czuleger said he would not comment on any “private conversations” he may have had with Lichtman. He conceded that he has not spoken with Lichtman in “several weeks,” but attributed that to their busy schedules.
“If I ran into him at Starbucks, I would invite him to sit down for a cup of coffee,” Czuleger said. “I’d probably offer to let him pay.”
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company