My court unification efforts have become a failure

Posted on April 11, 2013

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By Larry Stiriling – a retired legislator and a retired judge

My court-unification effort has become a failure.

Most former politicians do not own up to their errors, but here is one that needs understanding and corrective action by the legislature. “Court unification” was an attractive concept that emerged from what was then known as “The El Cajon Experiment.”

The problem that the several El Cajon judges, who dreamed up the idea, was that California had three levels of trial courts which were both confusing and inefficient. The smallest were Justice Courts located through out rural areas which were presided over by a “justice of the peace” (JP) who in reality was the most popular local butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. A JP did not have to be a lawyer because he handled mostly traffic matters. With the advent of improved communications and finally the internet, distance became ever less important to the flow of information thereby making justice courts and even municipal courts obsolete.

The judges of the El Cajon Experiment arranged for themselves to be “cross designated” which allowed each judge to handle municipal and superior matters. This arrangement created substantial internal efficiencies to the benefit of the litigants and the taxpayers. Satisfied that they had found a solution that reduced bureaucracy, costs, and delays, the judges of the El Cajon Experiment asked me as their State Assembly Representative to initiate a constitutional amendment to enact their idea.

As a result, I successfully carried a constitutional amendment through the legislature and to the statewide ballot. In those days, I believed that good ideas sold themselves, so I did not mount a statewide campaign to pass the measure and it failed. There was one happy result and that was the ballot measure kicked off a state-wide discussion about the idea which began to gain wide acceptance.

As a result, State Bar asked me to start with the unification of the justice courts into municipals thereby giving rurals a substantially increased level of service with minimal cost increases. I carried that measure to the statewide ballot and it passed handily.

Later I took a seat on the municipal-court bench and saw with my own eyes how correct the El Cajon judges had been. My former colleague Bill Lockyer subsequently successfully passed a modified version of my first initial effort to unify the municipals and the superior courts. This time, I acted as state chairman of the campaign and promoted the idea far and wide and it passed in nearly every county with the highest plurality here in San Diego. The result was an immediate flurry of improvements in our local operations. Judges from the downtown court were moved to impacted courts, staffs were united, rules were unified, and the promised savings realized.

With unification, and other legislative support such as lawyer sanctions, fast track, judge voir dire in criminal cases, and improved automation, the San Diego courts were able to provide superlative service. The three-year backlog of civil cases that were ready for trial shrunk until as a civil judge, I could assign a case that was “at issue” on Friday to an open court- room the following Monday. Unfortunately lurking in San Francisco was an organization called the Judicial Council and its supporting staff organization called “The Administrative Offices of the Court (AOC).” Their presence should not have been a problem as their roles are constitutionally delineated as “advisory” to the courts and the legislature.

But for them, the siren song of “unification” meant that the historic relationship among themselves and trial courts were to be “reborn” as the current chief justice recently said. The very notion that local elected judges in the 54 counties operating their courts for over a hundred years in accordance with the Government Code but tailored to local needs was to them an unruly specter that needed to be reigned in.

“Unification” to the chief justice and his staff at the AOC meant an opportunity for a power grab by misrepresenting to the state legislature the purpose of unification. Nothing in the unification amendments authorized top-down control of local elected officials (judges) by unelected bureaucrats in San Francisco and Sacramento. More importantly, the operation of mighty Los Angeles County is vastly different from those of tiny Mariposa County. By honeyfuggling the legislature, the chief justice and his minions at the AOC siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars to grow a huge staff in San Francisco to “govern” the courts.

The result is that while AOC employees now number as many high-paid employees as there are judges,  local courts have had to close, furlough employees and leave needed positions  unfilled. The actions of the former and present chief justices and the AOC staff are unconstitutional and are grinding justice to a halt in California.  Though neither the El Cajon judges, Senator Lockyer and certainly not myself intended for “unification” to cripple the state courts, sadly that is what has happened.

The legislature should make amends by defunding most of the AOC staff and directing available funds to the local courts as the constitution wisely intended.

Larry Stirling graduated from San Diego State University in 1964. He then enlisted in the United States Army, was commissioned, and served 20 years as an infantry officer; four on active duty and 16 years in the active reserves. He commanded a company in Korea from mid-1967 to mid-1968. Upon release from active duty, Larry took a job as an administrative analyst for the city manager of the City of San Diego. Four years later he was selected as the finance director for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). Four years later, with the help and guidance of Lee Hubbard and Pete Wilson, Larry was elected to the San Diego City Council. In 1980 he was elected to the State Assembly and served four terms. In 1988, he was elected to the State Senate where he served until appointed to the Municipal Court bench by Governor George Deukmejian. Upon unification of the state’s trial courts, Larry was elevated to Superior Court judge where he served until 2003, when he retired. Larry now serves “of counsel” to the distinguished business and finance law firm of Teeple Hall and as “senior counsel” and director of mediation services for the statewide law firm of Adams Kessler which specializes in the Davis-Stirling Act. He is also partner in Sacramento Advocacy, a Sacramento-based lobbying firm. Larry is married to Linda, a Senior Vice President, Financial Consultant & Portfolio Manager, Folsom-Stirling-Sweeney Group at RBC Dain Rauscher. He has two adult children, Shenandoah and Jason. Larry is a member of the Downtown Rotary Club 33; a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the California and San Diego Bar Associations. Larry is the author of two books, Leading at a Higher Level, a book on public administration reform; and Asked and Answered, a book on practical courtroom evidence.
Produced by Larry Stirling with republication rights granted to Yen Interactive Media