Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Czuleger Says Court to Increase Oversight of Commissioners
Investigation of Ex-Commissioner Dobbs Prompted Rule Change, Presiding Judge Explains
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger said yesterday that the court is cracking down on commissioners who fail to decide cases within 90 days, an action he attributed to alleged foot-dragging by former Commissioner Ann Dobbs.
The presiding judge said an amendment went into effect yesterday beefing up the court’s existing rule rendering commissioners subject to the same 90-day requirement that the state Constitution imposes on trial judges. He said this was a response to a “weakness” the Dobbs matter had exposed in the court’s oversight of commissioners.
Those subordinate judicial officers are no longer on their honor to observe the time limits but, like judges, must swear each month that no matter has remained undecided before them longer than 90 days. This requirement is being extended to referees, and the presiding judge noted the rule now requires staff to notify the presiding judge of any noncompliance.
Czuleger confirmed that an investigation by Assistant Presiding Judge Charles McCoy into allegations that Dobbs allowed some 30 cases to sit undecided well past the time limit imposed by the rule before stepping down last October remains ongoing.
Dobbs became a commissioner in 1998 and presided over family law hearings the entire time during almost nine years on the bench, serving all but the first three weeks of her tenure in the Central District at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. She did not respond to calls seeking comment.
After her retirement, the court discovered that she had accumulated the backlog of undecided cases, in apparent violation of Local Rule 1.7(n), which imposes a duty upon commissioners to promptly determine all pending matters within 90 days after the matter is submitted for decision.
Czuleger said that Dobbs had not been accused of making any false declarations. However, citing employment privacy concerns, he declined to address allegations that she had deliberately failed to enter cases into the court’s database in order to avoid discovery of her noncompliance with the time limit.
He also praised Family Law Department Supervising Judge Marjorie Steinberg and other judges for having made extra efforts to assist litigants affected by the backlog, saying that the court had “worked through” all but a few of the cases, and remarking that he thought the court had avoided having to declare any mistrials.
Czuleger conceded that the delayed cases had “fallen through the cracks,” but he predicted that the amendment to the local rule would allow the court to spot any similar problem in the future. He also predicted that McCoy would conclude his investigation shortly.
The presiding judge declined, however, to speculate as to what acts he might be able to take against a commissioner found to have violated the local rule who has since retired, noting that he might not be able to do much beyond prohibiting the officer from serving in the future in a judicial capacity and referring the matter to the State Bar.
Victoria Henley, director-chief counsel of the Commission on Judicial Performance echoed Czuleger’s comments, saying that such actions would be the most likely outcome of any complaint to the commission concerning a former subordinate judicial officer.
She said that the commission interprets California law to grant it discretionary, concurrent jurisdiction over subordinate judicial officers, such as commissioners, “above and away from” the jurisdiction exercised by a local superior court, but conceded that the commission would face similar limitations as the superior court in a matter involving a former subordinate judicial officer.
As an illustration, she noted that the commission closed its files on all but two of 148 open complaints involving subordinate judicial officers in 2007, and that the two remaining matters were disposed of by stipulation providing that the officers agreed not to serve or seek to serve in any judicial capacity, and agreed to have the complaints disclosed to the State Bar.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company