Temporary Judges: An Invaluable Service to the Court and Public

Temporary judges have played an integral role in California courts for over a century. Article 6, Section 21 of the California Constitution, which governs the current iteration of the Temporary Judge Program, provides: “[o]n stipulation of the parties…the court may order a cause to be tried by a temporary judge who is a member of the State Bar, sworn and empowered to act until final determination of the cause.” This simple phrase has granted California trial courts the flexibility to meet the needs of the public even in times when resources are extremely limited.

For the Contra Costa Superior Court, the attorneys who volunteer their time to serve as temporary judges help to cover calendars when our bench officers are unavailable. This service has been invaluable to the bench and the public, particularly in the last eight years when the court system has suffered significant budget cuts and courts have been forced to close courthouses and reduce calendars.

It is not uncommon for a litigant entering a courtroom on a traffic, small claims, unlawful detainer or civil harassment matter to have their case heard by a temporary judge. For litigants in these case types, it is often their wish to be heard and have their day in court. With the support of our temporary judges, the Contra Costa Superior Court is able to meet this need of the public by keeping calendars moving and courtrooms open. Without the service of the temporary judges, cases would be continued and litigants throughout the county would experience delay and inconvenience.

Though volunteers, the temporary judges in Contra Costa County are rewarded with the opportunity to serve their local communities and to learn about the law and the judicial system from a different perspective. According to Barbara Suskind, a long-time member of the Contra Costa Temporary Judges Program: “Sitting as a Pro Tem Judge in the Superior Court (any department) is the least expensive, most productive, learning experience available. You learn in a very real way what the judge’s perspective is and what constitutes a solid presentation.”

In addition to this hands-on learning experience, attorneys interested in serving as temporary judges are invited to participate each year in continuing legal education courses on a variety of substantive legal topics as well as in ethics and bench demeanor. These courses are generally offered once a year and are lead by Commissioner Lowell Richards.

Serving as a temporary judge also offers practical experience to attorneys interested in pursuing a career as a judicial officer. Indeed, Judge Clare Maier served as a temporary judge before being appointed to the bench. Similarly, Commissioner Peter Fagan and Commissioner Terrye Davis both served as temporary judges before being hired by Contra Costa Superior Court as full-time Commissioners.

Temporary Judges are appointed at the discretion of the Presiding Judge and may be assigned to hear matters in small claims, traffic, unlawful detainers, domestic violence, probate, civil harassment, juvenile delinquency and juvenile dependency. To serve as a temporary judge, an attorney must be a member in good standing of the California State Bar and have at least ten years in practice (Cal. Rule of Court, Rule 2.812(a)). Temporary judges must also complete minimum training requirements, including ethics and bench demeanor courses as well as substantive legal courses for specific case types (Cal. Rule of Court, Rule 2.812(c)). Contra Costa Superior Court also requires its temporary judges to complete additional case-specific training to ensure the volunteer is well equipped to meet the needs of the public.

Attorneys interested in serving as temporary judges for the Contra Costa Superior Court are encouraged to apply. For more information about the requirements and the application process, visit the Court’s website at www.cc-courts.org and click on the ‘I’m an Attorney’ quick link. The court will schedule in-person judicial demeanor and substantive law training sessions in late December 2016. Many of these courses include the same training presented to judges at the Judicial College. The courses also include ethics and bias units as well.

And a final word to the attorneys who have and continue to serve as temporary judges in this county…thank you! Your commitment and hard work is greatly valued by the court and the parties who appear before you.