Wednesday, January 16, 2002
Measure to Gradually Convert Court Commissioner Posts to Judgeships Clears Legislative Hurdle
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Up to 10 superior court commissioner seats around the state could be turned into new judgeships each year under a bill approved yesterday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
AB 1698, which designates the entire committee as its author, was approved on a 10-0 vote The bill could prove especially helpful to the Los Angeles Superior Court, where the 154 authorized commissioners make up more than a quarter of the bench.
But Los Angeles would have to share the annual conversion quota with the state’s other superior courts, and the bill provides for an upper limit of 250 converted positions. Only commissioner seats that are vacant would be eligible for conversion to judgeships.
The bill is sponsored by the Judicial Council.
If passed, it would succeed interim legislation that allowed the gradual conversion by the governor of municipal court seats to superior court judgeships. That measure was brought forward as part of a compromise between proponents and critics of court unification, but was ultimately made moot by the absorption of every municipal court in the state into superior courts.
Commissioner seats are authorized by legislation and filled by each superior court, whose judges hire qualified attorneys to serve. State law sets forth the type of matters that commissioners, also known subordinate judicial officers, may hear. Upon stipulation of the parties, judges pro tem, including commissioners, may hear any matter that a superior court judge may hear.
The purpose of the legislation is not simply to increase the number of judges, according to a report by the legislative analyst, but to end a perceived disparity in access to justice from county to county because of the different use to which superior courts put their commissioners.
Before trial court funding reforms of the last decade made the state responsible for funding courts and paying judicial officer salaries, the analyst explained, counties created and funded subordinate judicial officers when the Legislature failed to create new judgeships, as needed.
“As a result, there is a discrepancy across the state in terms of what kind of judicial officers hear what kind of cases,” the analyst wrote. “[P]ut another way, a citizen’s access to justice varies not because of the seriousness or complexity of a case, but because of where he or she lives.”
The Judicial Council has reported that commissioners statewide spend about 55 percent of their time doing the work of judges, but that the number is as high as 75 or 80 percent in some courts.
The bill would allow the Judicial Council to convert a position if a majority of the time spent by the commissioner in the post was as a judge pro tem. The position would convert when it becomes vacant and the council files notice with the secretary of state.
Only the governor would have the authority to fill the new judicial position.
An eligible but non-vacant position could also convert to a judicial seat when the governor appoints the commissioner filling the seat to a judgeship.
The analysis also addresses constitutional concerns that the bill would improperly transfer legislative authority-power to determine the number of judges on a trial court—to the judicial branch, in the form of the Judicial Council.
The analyst said that the only delegation would be of fact-finding power.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company