JUDGE FOR A DAY
By Ralph Barat Saltsman and Stephen Warren Solomon
At any given moment there is a serious possibility that the courtroom a Traffic Infraction litigant enters will have a Temporary Judge (aka Judge Pro Tem) presiding. The same holds true for Unlawful Detainer trials, hearings in Civil Harassment cases, Small Claims trials and some Family Law matters.
Temporary Judges are called upon in Civil Harassment cases to determine when the threats over a parking space constitute a danger or are just vigorous discussions protected by First Amendment. Do a series of emails constitute a danger? Is the ex husband really stalking the new boyfriend?
In Unlawful Detainer cases, tenants’ uninhabitability claims have to be measured, and land lords’ adherence to strict statutory time and process must be determined.
From the Temporary Judge’s perspective, each courtroom presents its own unique challenges. Visiting as Judge in Courtroom A, the Temporary Judge will immediately meet the Deputy Sheriff who says, “Good morning, Your Honor. Of course this is up to you, but our Judge usually grants OR releases in traffic arraignments, because who can afford $500 on a stop sign violation for bail?”
In Courtroom B across town, the clerk greets the Temporary Judge with, “Hello, Judge, the Commissioner, just for your information, almost never grants OR in traffic arraignments, because when they don’t show up, he/she can’t just forfeit bail. Of course, you’re in charge, so it’s up to you.” In Courtroom C the clerk informs the Temporary Judge, “Of course you know what your assignment is, right?” “To dispense justice?” you answer. “Yes, he/she says, “as long as you finish by 11:45. Did I mention we have 150 arraignments this morning?”
For the record those clerks and Deputies are crucial to the Temporary Judge’s success in handling the court calendar fairly, expeditiously and with a minimum of (one hopes harmless) error.
Throughout the Los Angeles County Superior Court system, Judges and Commissioners temporarily yield the bench to Temporary Judges. There are 444 Superior Court Judges appointed by the Governor and elected by the people. There are presently 694 Temporary Judges volunteering their time by half day or full day to preside over court cases. In 2010 Temporary Judges covered 6464 court calendars. In 2011 Temporary Judges covered 6785 calendars.
Temporary Judges are asked to voluntarily cover courts reaching from Santa Monica to Pomona and from Long Beach to Chatsworth and can accept their assignments from a list, and can choose to preside morning or afternoon.
Those volunteering as Temporary Judges contribute time without compensation. This translates to monetary benefit to the Superior Court. The number of calendars handled by Temporary Judges equates to the full time annual employment of 16 Superior Court Judges. By rough mathematics, the Temporary Judge system constitutes a savings of $3,990, 608. This comes at a time of devastating cutbacks in the justice system. Calculating the equivalent monetary contribution made by attorneys volunteering for the program by the hourly rate of, say, $400 per hour, the support is impressive. That contribution comes to $8,142,000. Impressive and yet, some believe, a small price to pay for putting on a black robe. (Gov’t Code Sec. 68110)
As Judge Stuart Rice recently stated, “As Chair of the Temporary Judge Program, I am gratified to send hundreds of Los Angeles’ finest attorneys to sit as Temporary Judges, in Traffic, Small Claims, Unlawful Detainer and Civil Harassment cases, so those courts can continue to function even though their judges are absent. Temporary Judges are often the public’s only encounter with the Judicial System. The Temporary Judge Program is economically beneficial and enhances the services provided to the public.”
With the significant budgetary crises and consequent cutbacks on personnel and court staff and the shifting and consolidating of caseloads amongst courthouses, the demand for Temporary Judges has become less predictable. Caseloads have shifted from Courthouse to Courthouse, courtrooms have closed, staff have been transferred and staffing levels have been cut back. The Temporary Judge Program continues to be an asset to the court as it struggles to continue to provide access to justice for all who seek it.
There was a time when attorneys would be asked to cover cases and courtrooms on an ad hoc basis by sitting Superior & Municipal Court Judges. Today, the California Rules of Court set training and qualification requirements. Presently, ten years of active practice is required. The training requirements for Temporary Judges are mandatory and continuing. The combination of on-line and live seminars includes:
Bench Demeanor, Traffic (arraignments and trials), Small Claims Procedure, Small Claims Consumer and Substantive Law, Unlawful Detainer, Judicial Ethics, Family Law (in several categories) and Civil Harassment.
Additionally, there are live seminars required and Bench Conduct and Demeanor and classes offered throughout the year on these and other topics important for temporary judges. Certification must be renewed every three years. (See: California Rules of Court 2.812)
Temporary Judges are asked to be mindful of the statistic that most people who come in contact with the judicial system are in a traffic court, small claims court or in a similar court experience. Those are people who are most concerned with being heard and having their day in court. However, lower monetary limits and procedures on infractions do not diminish the potential for controversy. Temporary Judges find themselves faced with serious and sometimes complex legal tangles. The cases heard are typically outside the practice areas of the Temporary Judge. For example, “Red Light Camera” laws are pending before the California Superior Court.
The Temporary Judges system is Constitutionally created. In 1927, the California Supreme Court in Martello v. Superior Court (Los Angeles County), 202 Cal. 400 reversed a Temporary Judge decision because the California Constitution authorization of Temporary Judges was deleted mid-trial.
Presently, California Constitution Article 6, Sec. 21 (adopted November 8, 1966) provides:
On stipulation of the parties litigant the court may order a cause to be tried by a temporary judge who is a member of the State Bar, sworn and empowered to act until final determination of the cause.”
With that stipulation signed, litigants and the Temporary Judge enter into a multi-faceted arrangement. For most litigants, standing before a judge in a courtroom is novel. For the Temp, looking down from the bench is itself different from the day to day of practice. There is a lot to be learned from that perspective, and the merits and substance of the litigation can be very foreign. Corporate litigators can hear Civil Harassment Restraining Orders. Lawyers spending a career dealing with administrative government regulations may decide small claims disputes between neighbors whose trees invaded their respective properties. Attorneys who regularly write appellate briefs and argue before the Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court can be assigned a morning of Unlawful Detainers. The unfamiliar is stimulating; performing the task, rewarding.
Decisions rendered by Temporary Judges can be reviewed by the Courts of Appeal (See People v Benhoor (2009) 177 CA 4th 1308 where the Court of Appeal affirmed a traffic infraction conviction and the issue was whether the appellant received a speedy trial.) Decisions made by Temporary Judges could be reviewed by the California Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court.
In the materials presented to prospective Temporary Judges, emphasis is given to the fact that the parties typically appearing before a Temporary Judge are self-represented. Temporary Judges are informed that “attorneys care about results; the public cares more about being heard and being treated fairly and with respect; judges want to efficiently move cases and get them over with.…”
The volunteer presiding as Temporary Judge suddenly shifts from advocate and adversary to impartial trier of fact and law. As noted by Judge Rice, most litigants appearing in that courtroom have never before been involved in the judicial system. The impression that Temporary Judge leaves with the litigant will likely be his or her entire and only experience which may last a lifetime. It is most important for those litigants to leave the courtroom believing they had a full opportunity to tell their story and make their case. This is the mandate held by Temporary Judges and, oh yes, to finish the morning calendar while it’s still morning.
Ralph B. Saltsman and Stephen Warren Solomon are partners in the Law Firm of Solomon, Saltsman & Jamieson in Los Angeles. The authors practice in the area of land use, Indian Gaming, zoning, administrative, personal injury, and constitutional law. Both Saltsman and Solomon volunteer as Temporary Judges. Saltsman and Solomon can be reached at (310) 822-9848; [email protected] and [email protected].