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California Supreme Court upholds dismissal of criminal cases over judge shortage

The California Supreme Court [official website] on Monday upheld [opinion, PDF] the dismissal of 18 criminal cases in Riverside County because there were not enough judges available to hear the cases. The Superior Court of Riverside County, a California state trial court, has been heavily burdened [RCBRTF report, PDF] with criminal cases in recent years, with nearly 25 percent of jail inmates awaiting trial for over a year, and as many as 32 inmates awaiting trial for more than four years. During the criminal proceedings at issue, the lower court diverted many of its resources, including judges and courtrooms, to the criminal case docket at the expense of pending civil trials, but the reallocation of resources failed to reduce the criminal caseload. After the defendants were told that no courts or judges were available for each of their scheduled trial dates, the defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Section 1382 of the California Penal Code [text], California's speedy trial statute. The statute requires that felony cases be brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment. Chief Justice Ronald George addressed the lower court's reasoning:

Here, the trial court reasonably could find that the lack of a number of judges sufficient to timely try the present case (and the 17 other criminal cases that were dismissed at the same time in the Riverside Superior Court) was fairly attributable to the state's failure, over a considerable period of time, to provide a number of judges sufficient to meet the needs of Riverside County's rapidly growing population and caseload - a circumstance fairly attributable to the fault or neglect of the state.
The court also concluded that "good cause" to continue the trials, 16 misdemeanor cases and two felony cases, at a later date did not exist under the state's penal code.

California has employed a number of money-saving tactics to reduce the state's $20.7 billion budget deficit [California LAO report]. In September 2009, California courts implemented monthly closures [JURIST report] to ease the budget crisis. California Code 68070 [text] authorizes closure of the courts, "for the transaction of judicial business for one day per month and may adopt rules of court to implement this section." California court employees rallied [Marketplace report] in protest of the closures, arguing that court closures harm the public. George has also voiced similar concerns [SDNN report] about the court closures.

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