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| Arguments For
| Arguments Against
A constitutional amendment that would let judges
of each county consolidate that county's municipal courts into a unified superior
As anyone who's ever faced the bar of justice, whether it be in civil litigation
or a criminal case, California's county courts are divided into two different sections.
Superior courts generally handle the big stuff: Felonies, family law, and civil suits
involving more than $25,000. Each county has a superior court district, and there
are a total of 805 superior court judgeships. Municipal courts generally handle misdemeanors,
infractions - such as speeding tickets - and most civil lawsuits involving disputes
of $25,000 or less. Counties are divided into municipal court districts based on
population, and there are now 675 municipal court judgeships. Current law allows
for consolidation of some staff and services, and municipal judges are allowed to
hear the bigger cases, but by and large, the two have remained separate. As the crime
rate rose, and with the enactment of the 1994 "Three Strikes You're Out"
law, however, local courts - particularly in urban areas - found an imbalance. Superior
court dockets were overstocked, and municipal judges found their dockets crowded
with felony cases. In addition to requesting a state bailout of the costs associated
with maintaining the courts, some localities also wanted the flexibility to consolidate
the two court systems.
Proposition 220 permits superior and municipal courts within a county to consolidate
their operations upon approval by a majority of superior court judges and a majority
of municipal court judges in the county. Such consolidations would abolish municipal
courts and create a unified superior court. In addition, the measure makes a number
of other related and conforming changes to the Constitution regarding municipal courts,
and to the minimum qualifications and election of judges in consolidated courts.
The legislative analyst estimates that to the extent that most courts choose to consolidate,
there would likely be annual net savings in the long term. In addition, a state buy
out of local court financing, approved last year by the Legislature, includes some
additional incentives for courts which unify.
Supporters include its legislative author, state Senator Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward),
as well as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association, The Judicial Council, the California
State Association of Counties, and the California State Sheriffs' Association. They
argue the measure will increase the effectiveness of the state's Three Strikes Law.
By unifying the courts, they argue, more judges will be available to handle the explosion
of criminal cases now "clogging" the system. It will also, they contend,
make enough room in judicial schedules to allow for the hearing of some long-delayed
civil cases. Supporters also contend this plan will improve the courts and save taxpayers
money by combining the functions of local courts and reducing the need for new judges.
Opponents include the National Tax Limitation Committee and Mike Reynolds, the author
of the Three Strikes and You're Out Law. They argue the measure has nothing to do
with preserving the Three Strikes Law - they say it actually serves as a detriment
to the enactment and implementation of Three Strikes. By unifying the trial courts,
Proposition 220, they say, will eliminate an efficient system of justice for small,
but important, civil and criminal cases, while elevating every municipal court judge
to the superior court with a pay raise. Rather than elevating the status of municipal
judges, they contend that the state Legislature should instead create new judicial
districts to correspond with the state's expanding population.
--- Article by Tippy Young