A Tenure of Challenge & Change
In 2018, when I agreed to serve as Presiding Judge, I had hoped to explore opportunities to improve on our court operations and to make the work processes more efficient and sustainable for court employees, bench officers, and court users. I did not envision I would have to develop and implement various health mandates or enforce compliance with the ever-changing COVID-19 related policies. Incivility and polarization was on the rise in the years leading up to the onset of COVID-19 in 2020. Unfortunately, the COVID-related mandates and disruption seem to have amplified the discord occurring in our work and larger community lives since March of 2020.
In January 2021, as my tenure as Presiding Judge began, the court was in the midst of its second extended period of limited operations due to the record-high spread of COVID-19 and alarming death rate. Jury trials were suspended from December 2020 until early March 2021; housing modules at the county jail were, at various times, under quarantine to stop the spread of the disease; and yet criminal filings continued and most out-of-custody defendants, including those charged with misdemeanor offenses, asserted their right to a speedy trial, resulting in a concerning backlog of cases.
Change is hard in the best of times; it is excruciatingly difficult and near impossible when it comes at a time of unpredictability, and unprecedented incivility and fear. But with the assistance and commitment of our court employees and bench officers, we persevered. The court undertook two significant changes in its operations: implementation of a new case management system (Odyssey) which included launching e-filing, and a new calendaring system of felony criminal cases through direct assignment. The groundwork for these changes had been laid pre-pandemic by other presiding judges, a Court Executive Officer long-since retired, and an Executive Committee comprised of many members who are no longer with the court. Those court leaders could not have contemplated that implementation of these ambitious initiatives would fall at a time when asking more of employees, and the patience of judges and other stakeholders, was perhaps too much for many.
The court’s antiquated case management system (LJIS and ICMS) was obsolete and on life-support. The court was beholden to the county for its mainframe and critical operational support. The system was extremely limited in its usefulness to the court, though the court’s stakeholders became dependent on it for many of their internal needs. LJIS (and ICMS) was imbedded in the court’s daily operations and heavily utilized by stakeholders, leaving little to no appetite – and at times resistance — to turn to new technology and software. The Court’s Executive Officer Kate Bieker, the Court’s IT team, managers, and many employees who agreed to assist in the hard work of preparation and implementation of the new Odyssey system worked tirelessly to prepare for the launch. Contra Costa Superior Court is the only court to implement Odyssey in all case types at once. Other California courts opted for a more conservative approach, implementing Odyssey one case type at a time. Although a gradual implementation might have been less initial work, it would have extended disruptions and inefficiencies. Our court’s ambitious approach paid off, and Odyssey is now up and running. There are issues that need to be resolved–as anticipated–but the success of the Odyssey rollout is beyond even our most optimistic hopes.
E-filing was likely the most-anticipated upgrade to court operations that attorneys were anxiously awaiting given the convenience of electronic processing of pleadings. There was, however, a general misconception that somehow e-filing linked the filing process directly into the court’s case management system, and that by hitting “send” the document would automatically populate in the official court electronic file. As is the case in all courts that offer e-filing, documents are first reviewed by court clerks in the electronic format to ensure compliance with the California Rules of Court, local rules, and standing orders before the pleadings are accepted for filing. This process is no different from the process utilized when filing hardcopy documents presented at the windows in court clerks’ offices, and it takes significant court resources. And although there has been much consternation about the time lag between hitting “send” until the document is uploaded and accessible through a justice partner or public portal, Contra Costa County Superior Court has one of the quickest turnaround times from submission to uploading into the court’s case management system (Odyssey).
Perhaps even more ambitious was the implementation of a new case assignment system in the felony criminal cases. Before 2021, all case types filed with the court except criminal cases were assigned directly to departments to manage cases from initial filing through resolution. This type of case assignment is called direct assignment or direct calendar. In contrast, criminal cases of all types were managed through a “master calendar” system. Cases were assigned to different departments for every hearing, often resulting in as many as six or more judges ruling on bail issues, motions, managing plea negotiations, and presiding over the trial. This approach involved reliance on “calendar departments” to manage large volume calendars consisting of pretrial motions, pretrial conferences, and change of pleas. Cases were set multiple times requiring significant staff resources in calendar prep and system updates. Master trial calendar call required significant “air traffic control” as the assigning judge juggled trial assignments to open departments and re-assignments as attorneys filed last-minute preemptory challenges to open departments. For the receiving trial departments, it was feast or famine with no predictability or control over the flow of cases or case resolution. It was extremely rare that the trial judge would have any familiarity with the underlying facts or legal issues in the case before it landed in their courtroom the day of trial. No felony cases were calendared in the branch courthouses for any hearing after the preliminary hearing and there were no felony trials held in the Richmond or Pittsburg courthouses. Witnesses, victims, and defendants were required to manage transportation to Martinez regardless of where the alleged criminal offense occurred.
A workgroup of several judges was convened in January 2019 to assess the criminal case assignment system. Each member was tasked with researching other courts that utilized direct calendar assignment. After months of researching the issue, the workgroup presented their findings to the Executive Committee in November 2019, and the committee voted to implement direct calendar in felony cases. The Executive Committee determined that there should be an implementation date set to ensure the new calendaring system proceeded as planned. It voted to commence the new calendaring system effective January 1, 2021. As fate would have it, the implementation date fell during a pandemic and at a time when court operations were upended by closure mandates, jury trial suspensions, social distancing, masking mandates, housing quarantines at the county jail, and the like. Despite these challenges, the court implemented the new calendaring system.
In the late months of 2020, all pending felony cases were reviewed and assigned to a trial department for all purposes. Starting January 2021, newly filed felony cases are now assigned to a trial department at the arraignment hearing. All post-arraignment hearings are held in the assigned trial department, from preliminary hearing through resolution whether by plea or trial, including in the branch courthouses. Departments are now able to manage their own calendars and workflow. Judges can engage in meaningful plea discussions with the parties because they know the facts and legal issues of the cases assigned to them. Parties have predictability and consistency in their cases because they appear before the same judge for the life of the case, unlike our prior master calendar system when cases were handed off to a different judge for every hearing. The workload is much more evenly distributed among the felony trial departments as opposed to one calendar department that managed high-volume pretrial conferences and hearings.
Over the last two years, the court managed to not only stave off disaster brought about by the worst public health crisis to hit modern civilization in a century, but also to implement significant changes in its operations to the benefit of the court, our court users, and the public. As a member of the Executive Committee of Trial Court Presiding Judges, I have had the opportunity to learn and understand the struggles of the trial courts in California. With a record-high vacancy rate of judicial seats on our bench, and despite the challenges to court operations during COVID-19, our court managed more jury trials than most courts in California. I can state with much pride and respect for our court and its employees that our court has done an exemplary job in serving our community and affording the public access to justice to which all are entitled. These last two years were not what I expected, but I am very grateful for the hard work and dedication of our court team during this tumultuous, but ultimately productive, time. I am confident that incoming Presiding Judge Ed Weil and his Assistant Presiding Judge Christopher Bowen will continue to look for ways to improve court services for the community we serve.