2019 Review – Probate Division
Annual reports often contain numbers. Two for this report are 2.8 and 3.3.
The Judicial Council collects statistics about the administration of the judicial system. From the myriad bits of compiled information, the Council prepares reports, essentially comparative analyses, about various facets of the administration of the judicial system. Among those reports, the Council provides a summary of the new cases filed annually in each county, category by category, encompassing criminal, juvenile, civil, family, and probate filings. Based on those filings, the Council also offers an assessment, based on a form of comparative analysis, of the number of judicial officers that should be assigned in each county to handle that county’s cases, again, category by category.
A few years ago, the Judicial Council concluded that 2.8 judicial officers were needed to handle this county’s probate caseload. The most recent analysis sets the number at 3.3.
Fully cognizant of these caseload analyses, Presiding Judge Barry Baskin, supported by Court Executive Officer Kate Bieker, will soon effectuate the most significant change made over the past two decades affecting probate practice in this county. On February 4, 2020, Judge Virginia George and Judge Susanne Fenstermacher will take over the Probate Division. Highly-regarded throughout the county, both will well serve the interests of the probate community. A special commendation should be extended to the Presiding Judge for having made the difficult change. He is under tremendous pressure to satisfy the needs of all of the Court’s divisions, laboring to find ways of meeting their constant clamor for additional judicial resources when, in reality, such resources simply do not exist. Despite the budgetary constraints imposed on him, he has chosen to support the Probate Division, very possibly at the sacrifice of other divisions.
While a major change thus will soon occur, other facets of the administration of the Probate Division will remain the same. If she can be persuaded to delay her retirement, Courtroom Clerk Shannon Perry will continue to be the boss. When she is not available, other clerks take twice as long as she to process all of the daily calendars and the many arcane details of courtroom management. Not infrequently, two clerks must handle the work that she does by herself. The arithmetic is simple: she does the work of two clerks in half the time.
Probate Examiners Erica Gillies and Susan Long will still do the work that four, five, and six examiners handle with much less aplomb in other courts with comparable caseloads. On occasion, newly-retired Probate Examiner Linda Suppanich may be brought back to offer relief. Nine years ago, counsel and parties received tentative case summaries only, at best, 48 hours before hearings. Through the diligent work of the examiners, the time of posting has now become nine or more court days before hearings. The examiners have accomplished this administrative miracle while contending with an ever increasing number of general filings and ex parte applications, with the average monthly totals having increased in just two years from 816 (of which 288 were ex parte applications) in 2016 to 901 (of which 327 were ex parte applications) in 2018. The monthly average will be markedly higher for 2019. They ensure that all ex parte matters are addressed within, in most instances, the same day. They do so while answering their telephones, a form of communication seemingly unavailable in other courts.
Probate Facilitator Nicolas C. Vaca will also continue supporting the Probate Division. Having benefited from a Harvard degree, but more significantly a Berkeley education, he has worked tirelessly and selflessly to improve the quality and coverage of self-help resources available to self-represented litigants and participants in judicial actions and proceedings. Before he began his innovative work, prospective guardians endured on average, three to five hearings before fully completing the guardianship process. Now, with his assistance, most guardianships are completed within one formal hearing. Building on that successful endeavor, he has additionally begun directing his creative attention to conservatorships and small claims actions.
Julie Woods is one of the most prominent research attorneys in the court system. She is a presence on the Judicial Council’s Probate Curriculum Committee, writing and lecturing about probate topics of current interest. She also will soon begin serving a term on the Judicial Council’s Probate and Mental Health Advisory Committee. As the probate caseload continues to increase in the county, she remains a valuable resource for possibly staffing a third Probate Department, as has been done in other counties.
The times for the probate community in this county may not be ordinary. They will, however, be good.