A New Way of Managing Case Assignments in Criminal
For the attorneys practicing criminal law in Contra Costa County, you have undoubtedly experienced the frenetic master calendar call, every Monday through Thursday. The task of assigning cases from the often long list of 20+ felony matters calendared for trial — and as many for preliminary hearings — seemingly becomes a game of rummy cube as the supervising judge, often appearing as air traffic control in a congested flight path, juggles case assignments and manages judicial resources all the while concerned with ensuring statutory deadlines are met. This fire drill system of case assignment has led to periods of feast or famine — cases log-jammed to be assigned to a trial department or departments dark and without work causing under-utilization of court resources.
Judge Baskin formed a committee of judges in 2019 to conduct a review and analysis of our master calendaring system. For years, juvenile, family and civil cases have been directly assigned to departments at the time of case filing. After many months spent comparing and contrasting our master calendar system with other counties that utilize various iterations of direct calendaring in criminal cases, the committee recommended that the court implement direct calendar assignment in all felony matters. The recommendation was adopted by a majority vote of the Executive Committee in November 2019 with an implementation date of January 2021. In preparation for implementation, several judges, CEO Kate Bieker and support staff took a field trip to another court in order to observe and discuss direct calendaring with judges, administration, and clerical staff who have experienced the transition from master calendar to direct calendar assignment. There have also been discussions with the justice partners to disseminate information and coordinate planning. The COVID-19 pandemic and court closure briefly disrupted the planning process, but the court is pressing forward and the judicial assignments for 2021 were made in anticipation of the implementation of the new system in January.
Cases will be assigned for all purposes (for preliminary hearing through resolution) at the time a defendant is arraigned on the initial charging document. The arraignments will be handled in Martinez by one dedicated arraignment department. There will be eight judges assigned to handle felony cases assigned from the arraignment department. For the first time, we will have one dedicated felony judge in each branch courthouse and there will be a significant number of felony cases handled at the Richmond and Pittsburg courthouses, from preliminary hearing through trial. This will allow better access to local court resources for many. Some cases originating in East or West County will continue to be assigned in Martinez based on resources and security issues.
In addition to the arraignment and trial departments, there will be two specialty courts, including a mental health court and a department that will handle an assortment of matters such as probation, parole and PRCS (Post Release Community Supervision) violations, and the domestic violence review calendar. The misdemeanor cases will continue to be assigned from a master calendar system and will be heard in Martinez, Richmond, and Pittsburg. We anticipate having a second judge assigned to oversee misdemeanor matters in Martinez, including assisting with misdemeanor trials.
Although there are likely to be some “growing pains” and hiccups along the way as the court implements a new process for case assignments, we are optimistic there will be efficiencies gained in case management that will benefit defendants, victims and their families, attorneys, and the court.