Inland Empire counties get some extra judges, legislators to seek more help

November 27, 2018

By Malcolm Maclachlan

Several fast-growing inland counties are still short on judges, according to a preliminary draft of the latest biennial Judicial Needs Assessment from the Judicial Council. Meanwhile, a Riverside state legislator said he will once again introduce a bill to increase the number of judges in the state.

The Judicial Council will review the report on Friday as part of its regular meeting in San Francisco. A final report will be released after a judicial workload study if it is finished next year.

Overall, California is short 135 judges in 23 counties; 21 of these are inland counties. This is far better than the 188.5 judges needed in 30 counties shown in the November 2016 report.

The draft report shows significant improvement statewide and in the two most-judge starved counties in the state, Riverside and San Bernardino.

But these two counties also remain by far the most shorthanded. Court funding promises to be a major topic in Sacramento next year, especially with a new governor taking the helm.

"The current governor has been getting better about providing operational funds for the court," said Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, in reference to Jerry Brown. "But securing additional judicial positions has been a struggle."

An attorney and longtime advocate for additional judgeships, Roth said he and Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, will introduce a bill in the new session for six additional judges and $8.8 million in funding. These would be allocated according to the Judicial Needs Assessment, Roth said, adding he's sure some would go to Riverside and San Bernardino.

San Bernardino County is short by 38 judges, according to the report. This is better than the 48 judges needed according to the 2016 assessment. Riverside County is just behind with a 36-judge deficit, down from 47 two years ago. Sacramento, Kern and Fresno counties rounded out the top five, short between seven and 12 judges each.

Sacramento County Presiding Judge David De Alba said his court was supposed to get five of 50 new judge positions approved in a bill in 2006. But these were never funded, he added, echoing Roth's statement that "the budget is where decisions are made."

The latest improvements come mainly from a statewide reduction in workload due to courtroom efficiencies and fewer case filings. The actual number of authorized judicial positions actually dropped slightly, from 2,010 two years ago to 2,004 this year. Thanks to bills passed during the 2017-18 legislative session, Riverside and San Bernardino counties received four and two new judges, respectively.

"They came without money, but we're happy to have them," said San Bernardino County Presiding Judge John Vander Feer. "They're funded by our own operations money."

It was probably a bigger help when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed two judges to vacant positions on the court, he added.

Riverside County Presiding Judge Becky L. Dugan said the judges themselves are only part of the equation. Part of her job has been to distribute services like small claims and traffic court to 15 courthouses across Riverside's 180-mile width. The current state budget includes money to build a new nine-court facility in Menifee, in the southwestern part of the county off of Interstate 215.

"I don't even want 36 judges today," Dugan said. "Where would I put them? If they gave me 10 judges, I'd be delighted." The larger issue, she said, is the state allocates judges by legislation rather than population.

"You can say it's slightly better, but the problem San Bernardino and Riverside have is that because we have inexpensive housing, our population continues to grow by an exponential rate."