Monday, October 29, 2007
Judicial Council Recommends Conversion of Seven SJO Positions
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Judicial Council of California has adopted a recommendation to convert seven subordinate judicial officer positions, two of which are located in the Los Angeles Superior Court, into judgeships in accordance with the recently enacted AB 159.
By a unanimous vote, the 29-member council voted Friday to proceed with the process of converting two currently vacant positions and five soon-to-be-vacated positions pursuant to the new law which authorizes the ultimate conversion of 162 subordinate judicial officer positions to judgeships.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the council chair, called the recommendation “a great way to augment judicial resources at very little expenditure.”
AB 159 provides for the conversion of 16 vacant subordinate judicial officer positions in eligible superior courts to judgeships between Jan. 1 and June 30 of next year and requires the council to develop uniform allocation standards to identify the positions to be converted according to judicial need.
The bill also mandates that, beginning in the 2008-09 fiscal year, the council is to identify up to 16 vacant positions per fiscal year and convert them to judgeships upon notice to, and ratification by, the Legislature.
The two currently-vacant positions that the council slated for conversion are located in the Los Angeles Superior Court and the Contra Costa Superior Court. Five other positions are scheduled to become vacant by June 30, 2008, two of which are located in the Contra Costa Superior Court, and one each in the superior courts for Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Luis Obispo counties, the council found.
In adopting the recommendation, the council also set a deadline of February for staff to report back with a recommendation for allocating the remaining nine positions to be converted to judgeships this fiscal year.
However, Donna Hershkowitz, acting director of the Office of Government Affairs for the council, told the MetNews that further vacancies could be identified for conversion as soon as the council’s Dec. 7 meeting, and that vacancies to be converted could also be identified by the council’s Executive Planning Committee and put to the council’s members via a circulating order.
Dag MacLeod, manager of the Office of Court Research, told the council at its meeting that the recommendation was intended to minimize the time the positions might sit vacant while providing individual courts with the maximum amount of certainty as to the status of subordinate judicial officer positions being vacated.
He said that the seven positions affected by the recommendation had been identified to the council by individual superior courts. MacLeod also said that the superior courts had indicated that they anticipated more vacancies this fiscal year, and told the council that he expected the total number of prospective vacancies per fiscal year to exceed 16 per as a result of retirements and the elevation of commissioners to judgeships.
Hershkowitz said that the council would develop and implement a priority ranking procedure to determine which vacant positions would be converted in the event that total vacancies exceeded 16. However, she said that the council would likely wait to develop such a procedure at least until it identified the next set of positions to convert, and would likely hold off on finalizing the procedure until the number identified for conversion actually approached 16.
In a Judgeship Needs Study issued Feb. 14, the council identified 162 positions statewide for conversion, including 78 in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The numbers reflect an assessment of the amount of work done by commissioners and other SJOs that is appropriately characterized as judicial work, such as presiding over criminal and civil trials and contested family law proceedings, rather than the performance of subordinate duties, such as handling traffic and small claims trials and reviewing applications for provisional remedies.
The council on Friday also approved a sweeping set of recommendations to offer new protections for and improved court oversight of conservatees in state trial courts.
By unanimous vote, the council accepted the final report and recommendations of the Probate Conservatorship Task Force, a statewide panel chaired by Administrative Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren of this district’s Court of Appeal, and directed the administrative director of the courts to refer the recommendations to the appropriate committees for proposed action.
“Today, the Judicial Council has approved a far-reaching report that will improve the safety and protection of conservatees in California courts – among the most vulnerable members of society,” George declared in a statement. “The task force has made comprehensive and meaningful recommendations that will ensure the accountability of private and family conservators and improve the court’s management of these cases.”
The task force developed 85 separate recommendations following an 18-month study that involved public hearings, research, and interviews.
Chief among the recommendations was the automatic appointment of counsel for proposed conservatees in all cases unless good cause is shown that there is no need; the establishment of an advocacy program for all conservatees, modeled after the Court Appointed Special Advocate program; and the survey of existing procedures and recommendation of improved practices by a team of fraud detection professionals.
The council also adopted recommendations that judges be provided with criminal and credit background checks on persons under consideration for appointment as conservators; that a uniform schedule of accounts and a web-based accounting system be established to flag unusual expenditures; that the conservator or a qualified, responsible designee be required to visit the conservatee at least monthly in cases involving conservatorship of a person, and annually in estate conservatorships; that education and training be developed for judicial officers, attorneys, examiners, investigators and court-appointed counsel in probate conservatorship cases; and that statewide caseload standards for probate investigators and examiners be developed.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company