Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, June 12, 2023


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Court of Appeal:

Taxpayers May Sue Trial Court Over Speedy-Trial Denials

Opinion Says Judge, in Dismissing Action Against San Francisco Court Over Allegedly Persistent Delays, Misperceived Scope of 1986 Opinion Relating to Proceedings in Los Angeles Superior Court


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A taxpayer action lies against the San Francisco Superior Court to gain a declaration that the court is in repeated violation of Penal Code §1050(a) which requires that resolution of criminal cases be expedited “to the greatest degree that is consistent with the ends of justice” and that criminal trials be given “precedence over...any civil matters or proceedings,” the First District Court of Appeal has held.

The controversy in San Francisco casts a spotlight on proceedings in the Los Angeles Superior Court nearly four decades ago and the appellate court’s resolution of the issues presented to it in response to the procedures.

Authoring Thursday’s opinion for Div. Four was Alameda Superior Court Judge Jenna Whitman, sitting on assignment. Her opinion reverses a judgment of dismissal that was entered after Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Edward G. Weil sustained demurrers without leave to amend to a challenge to the Superior Court’s allegedly slow processing of criminal cases.

‘State of Crisis’

It was alleged in that action that “San Francisco’s criminal legal system is in a state of crisis,” with more than 400 criminal defendants having their cases pending after the statutory deadline for trial and 178 of them held in a jail, some for more than a year, and that the COVID-19 pandemic does not provide an adequate excuse.

Weil ruled that the action was hopeless in light of the proclamation by Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal in 1986, in Ford v. Superior Court, that “[o]ne department of the superior court cannot enjoin, restrain, or otherwise interfere with the judicial act of another department of the superior court.”

Whitman countered that “Ford is not relevant to the taxpayer cause of action.”

Scientology Case

The facts underlying the decision in Ford were that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul G. Breckenridge Jr. (now retired), who had presided over a trial in an action brought by the Church of Scientology, made an order for the unsealing of documents filed in the case. A separate action was brought on behalf of “Roes 1 through 200” against the Los Angeles Superior Court seeking to block the release of those documents.

The complaint says (with paragraph numbers omitted):

“The public release of these documents will identify plaintiffs as members of the Church of Scientology and as adherents of the Scientology religion.

“The information concerning plaintiffs in the subject documents is likely to lead to disclosure of private and confidential information concerning them for which they possess reasonable expectations of privacy.”

Waddington’s Ruling

On Dec. 20, 1984, then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lawrence Waddington, now an arbitrator/mediator, presided over a hearing on the plaintiffs’ application for a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) and an order to show cause re a preliminary injunction.

“[I]t seems to me that this argument ought to be made to Judge Breckenridge,” he commented, going on to say:

“So as a matter of collegiality and deference to a fellow colleague, I think he should have the first opportunity to hear this.”

In order to maintain the status quo until Breckenridge could be contacted, he issued a TRO of a one-week duration.

At a hearing on Dec. 27, Waddington announced that Breckenridge, who was on assignment to the Court of Appeal, was unavailable to hear motions in the case. He kept the TRO in place pending a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

Shimer’s View

The hearing was held on Jan. 16, 1985, before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Irving Shimer (now deceased). Shimer said at that hearing:

“…I think my responsibility requires that I put this matter before Judge Breckenridge.

“If Judge Breckenridge says, ‘It is not mine, I should not handle it, I don’t want to handle it, I can’t handle it,’ then perhaps I have to then consider it.

“Until then, and until I satisfy myself that this is not a matter of forum shopping, I will not go forward with this matter.” He denied the motion for a preliminary injunction without prejudice to it being brought before Breckinridge and ordered that the TRO be kept in place until Jan. 25.

Further Hearing

On Jan. 23, a further hearing was held before Shimer. He said he had declined to disturb the TRO so that proceedings could be brought before Breckinridge; instead of doing so, the plaintiffs filed a motion to disqualify Breckinridge for cause; addressing the merits, he declared that there was no basis for relief.

A judgment of dismissal was entered on March 28, 1985 after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Norman R. Dowds (now deceased) sustained demurrers without leave to amend.

Affirming decisions by Shimer and Dowds, the Court of Appeal for this district said on Dec 18, 1986, in an opinion by Justice George Danielson (since deceased):

“The complaint states no cause of action. In reality, it seeks to have one department of the superior court review and restrain the judicial act of another department of the superior court. That cannot be done.”

Ford Differentiated

Concluding that the proclamation in Ford did not justify jettisoning the complaint brought against the San Francisco Superior Court, Whitman pointed out that the plaintiffs’ stance in the present litigation “ignores the procedural posture in Ford, in which the plaintiff filed suit to challenge a judicial decision in an individual case.”

She wrote:

“Here, as the trial court acknowledged, plaintiffs do not seek to review, revise, or reverse any decision in an individual criminal case. Rather, they challenge courtwide decisions regarding allocation of judges, courtrooms, and other resources, as well as the creation and circulation to criminal departments of a ‘script’ to be utilized in resolving speedy trial motions in lieu of compliance with statutorily-mandated procedural requirements.”

Whitman added:

“[P]laintiffs have neither the desire nor the ability to intervene in the underlying criminal proceedings and have disavowed any intent to modify any order or judgment entered in a criminal case. And contrary to defendants’ assertions, the sought-after relief does not threaten to upset individual, fact-specific, discretionary decisions on speedy trial motions (to continue a trial beyond its statutory ‘last day’ or to dismiss a case for failure show good cause for such continuance) in individual criminal cases, or to alter the well-established procedural and substantive rules governing such motions. As such, neither the rule nor the underlying rationales of Ford apply to bar plaintiffs’ taxpayer cause of action.”

Individual Cases

The defendants also argued that the alleged widespread noncompliance by the court with speedy-trial provisions is not a fit subject for a taxpayer action because any particular violation can be raised in a defendant’s own prosecution.

“At oral argument,” Whitman recited, the defendants “went so far as to argue that even a clear violation of the duty to prioritize criminal matters—for example, a decision to conduct criminal trials only every other year—could not be challenged by taxpayers, but only by directly impacted criminal defendants in their individual cases.”

She declared: “Defendants cited no authority for this extreme ipse dixit, which contravenes the express purpose of section 1050(a) to protect not only the rights of criminal defendants, but the right of ‘the people, the defendant, and the victims and other an expeditious disposition’ of criminal cases.”

The case is Raju v. Superior Court of California for the City and County of San Francisco, 2023 S.O.S. 1964.


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