The Changing of the Guard
Our Presiding Judge Jill Fannin has been a stellar captain, guiding our court through what we hope will be the end of an eight-year fiscal storm. Judge Fannin not only managed with less but somehow began the long overdue start to an electronic case management system (CMS) which starts this year in Traffic, and I hope to expand in later years to all case types. Thanks to her tireless efforts, my task as the incoming Presiding Judge is so much easier. I now only have to keep our ship on the same course that she charted for the last two years.
I am fortunate to start my term as Presiding Judge with a new Court Executive Officer (CEO) Kate Bieker, who recently replaced Stephen Nash. She is one of a few CEOs that came up through the ranks of being a Senior Human Resources Manager, and our 41 bench officers and 325 employees will benefit from her expertise and untiring efforts during these challenging times. Most of her staff have had to work harder with less resources, and without a pay increase for many years.
The communities we serve are increasingly diverse and our bench reflects that: I will be the first immigrant to become the Presiding Judge of our court (also the first immigrant appointed to the bench in California that was born, raised, and trained in South Africa). The court’s next Assistant Presiding Judge succeeding me is Rebecca Hardie, the first openly gay person set to become the Presiding Judge of our court in 2021.
My work as the Presiding Judge has already begun with the first and perhaps most challenging task: Judicial Assignments for 2019. In our county, I am fortunate that we have such a talented and reputable bench where many serve statewide on important committees. Our courts talents are rich but its resources are under great strain.
For the last eight years, we have seen our court’s finances slashed to the point where we can cut no more, only bare bones remain. We can only hope the next governor sees fit to restore our judiciary to a healthy level so that access to justice for all is improved. We are after all, an equal branch of government and should not have to lobby to keep courts open, as in the past. On the negative side, the court’s ability to maintain open courtrooms while there are open judgeships, illnesses or other absences is in doubt. Our current allotment of visiting judges (used to fill these empty slots on a temporary basis) is being reduced by 50% which creates a serious challenge to keep all courtrooms open at all times. On the positive side, there is a possibility that our court will be granted the funding with which to extend our Traffic CMS to all case types. If this comes to pass, our county will be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century with current technology.
We have a very high criminal trial rate which needs to be addressed. We have been using a master calendaring system for all criminal cases, in contrast to the direct systems for civil, juvenile and family. I will create a committee to investigate whether a master calendar criminal system is the most efficient for our court in the future. In addition, I hope we can find a way to have more collaboration in our criminal justice system: To this end I am hoping to immediately enlist the District Attorney, Public Defender, Criminal Conflicts Panel and private bar support, to assist in the establishment of a dedicated courtroom to handle cases identified as benefitting from such collaboration, to achieve resolution. Those cases that fail to resolve early will go back into the usual criminal case flow.
I look forward to working with our Contra Costa County Bar Association and all attorneys to improve our communication and joint efforts at improving our justice system. We cannot provide adequate levels of service without the numerous hours and countless attorneys who volunteer their time. I am daunted by the challenges that will come during my term as Presiding Judge. My predecessors have set a very high bar and I won’t be able to meet that standard alone. I have an open door policy and if you have ideas on improving our system, please share them with me and say a prayer that our new governor is more generous to our courts than the current one.