What a difference a year makes. Last year my only aspirations were to oversee sweetening the paychecks of the Court’s hard working employees and to improve services, including moving towards a new case management system. We made progress on those goals and saw many other developments as well.
One of the most gratifying events was our ability to provide ongoing raises to employees for the first time in seven and a half years. We did this by cutting into our operational budget, something that is generally not considered a smart business decision. But the bench was determined to offer salary increases even if it meant going into the red. We had a plan for making up the deficit and were fortunate in the current fiscal year to receive a small bump in our anticipated allocation from the state. Happily, we have managed to deliver the raises and balance the budget once again.
Another achievement has been the monumental move of the Juvenile Division from Martinez to Walnut Creek. Judge Rebecca Hardie’s article discusses the many ways this transition improves services for juvenile justice in our county. We also took the opportunity to completely revamp the Walnut Creek traffic courtroom and waiting area. Our IT and Facilities staff did a tremendous job completing the move in a very compressed timeframe.
This year brought the bittersweet news of retirement of four wonderful bench officers: Judges Thomas Maddock, Trevor White, George Spanos and Diana Becton. We aren’t too gloomy about their retirements though because Judges Maddock, White and Spanos are part of the Assigned Judges Program and Judge Becton will be around town as the District Attorney.
The departures allowed us to welcome Judge Benjamin Reyes II, now sitting in Richmond, and Judge Wade Rhyne, who has been assigned to Pittsburg. The new judges are off to an outstanding start. We are so lucky to have them and look forward to the Governor filling our other two vacancies with equally talented and personable bench officers.
Trying to best allocate judicial resources among divisions is always a challenge. This year we successfully shifted a judge from the Pittsburg Criminal Division to the Family Division. Judge Brian Haynes’ new family law courtroom is providing long needed relief to a high volume case type.
Late last year and early this year, we were so inundated with criminal trials that judges in juvenile, probate and civil had to help shoulder the load. Supervising Criminal Judge Terri Canepa has done amazing work whittling down the backlog of criminal trials and preliminary hearings. At the same time, the inventory of mental health cases arising from criminal matters has nearly doubled. To address these new realities, next year we will convert a Martinez trial department to a mental health department. Judge Laurel Brady has graciously agreed to take on the newly-created position. As part of her new role, she will assume responsibility for the Behavioral Health Court. Cases under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS) and Laura’s Law will stay with Judges Ed Weil and Steven Austin, respectively.
Earlier this year, our court was the proud recipient of three grants from the Judicial Council’s Court Innovations Grant Program. One of these grants funds Veterans Court, which is described later in the magazine. The other two are equally exciting. Magda Lopez, our Director of Family Law and Professional Services, is overseeing a grant to purchase and install multilingual signage in our courthouses to improve access to the court system for non-English speaking customers. The new signs will be in universal symbols when possible. If written words are required, signs will be available in at least six additional languages. Our goal is to have the new signs in place by the end of June of 2019.
Heather Pettit, our Chief Information Officer, is overseeing the grant for improving our Virtual Self-Help site. The grant contemplates adding three new features to our website: automated fillable forms, an artificial intelligence chatbot, and a “track my case” module. The initial technical work is being completed with the help of student interns who are working collaboratively and remotely from locations throughout the country. After just three months, the interns have already made remarkable strides in fulfilling the objectives of the grant.
And, we have finally completed the process of selecting a vendor for a case management system. Our goal is to implement a new case management system in traffic by the end of this fiscal year. Once the launch is successful, we hope to roll out the case management system in other divisions of the court. Stay tuned for more exciting changes . . .