Nov 01, 2020
Report on the First—and Hopefully Not Annual—Remote Judges’ Luncheon
Nov 01, 2020
By J. Timothy Nardell
On October 28, MCBA hosted our annual judges’ luncheon. In the COVID-19 era, of course, it was not the usual festive in-person salmon and chicken affair at McInnis or the Four Points. Nonetheless, MCBA Board President Susan Feder presided over a Zoom meeting with grace and style while Presiding Judge Andrew Sweet, Assistant Presiding Judge James Chou, and Marin Superior Court CEO James Kim provided an update far different from last year’s.
The first order of business was election of MCBA’s 2021 officers and directors. Members affirmed the proposed director and officer slates by virtual raised-hand acclamation. See the announcement of our new board later in this issue of News & Notes.
Presiding Judge Andrew Sweet then thanked MCBA for continuing with the judges’ luncheon tradition even during the pandemic. He highlighted the collegiality of all of the members of the bench and thanked James Kim, the leadership team and Court staff for their hard work under difficult circumstances to keep the Court working. He also thanked the members of the bar for being flexible and adapting to the numerous changes required during the pandemic.
Courtroom ReconfigurationAt the beginning of March, when this all began, the Court had very little technological capacity to handle judicial proceedings remotely. Since then, the entire Court has worked tirelessly to put COVID-19 protocols in place to ensure that our courthouse remains as safe and accessible as possible. Judge Sweet reported that all departments—civil, criminal, family, specialty courts, traffic and small claims—are now set up for remote hearings using the Zoom platform. The two largest courtrooms (Departments F and M) have been reconfigured for in-person jury trials, placing jurors in the public gallery to create appropriate social distancing and using thermal temperature screening for all participants. An area of the main court hallway can be set up for socially-distanced jury deliberations. Using these protocols, Judge Simmons successfully presided over a major criminal jury trial, and more criminal jury trials are scheduled. Judge Sweet reported that civil jury trials are currently the only core court function that the Court has not been able to accommodate. In light of the Constitution’s speedy trial mandate, until the Court can make significant progress through the backlog of criminal jury trials, it is difficult to say when the Court will be able to start setting civil jury trials.
RetirementsCommissioners Christopher Longaker and Referee Frank Drago retired at the end of October. On November 1, newly hired Commissioner Janet L. Frankel began presiding over Department of Child Support Services cases involving family support issues and Paul J. Slavit began presiding over the traffic and infraction calendars.
Judicial AssignmentsFinally, Judge Sweet announced the judicial assignments for 2021, which mostly continue the current assignments for another year.
Civil Department: Judge Freccero will remain as the supervising judge while Judges Chou and Sweet will continue to preside over civil cases.
Family Court: Judge Adams will remain as the supervising judge, hearing cases along with Judge Talamantes (who will also be responsible for small claims appeals and management), Judge Wood (who will also be responsible for the community court and juvenile court, where there are cases pending from both Marin and Sonoma County), and Judge Lichtblau (who will also be responsible for the appellate panel).
Probate Court: Judge Simmons will continue to preside and she will also take on a newly-created position of roving settlement judge, helping settle all types of non-criminal cases.
Criminal Division: Judge Haakenson will continue as the supervising judge and will also preside over drug court. Judge Howard will continue to preside over criminal cases, and will be responsible for the domestic violence calendar and writs of habeas corpus. (There are a “mere” 675 COVID-19-related writs filed by inmates at San Quentin.) Judge Chernus will also continue to preside over criminal cases, and he will preside over a brand-new veterans’ court.
New Case Management System and E-FilingAfter Judge Sweet completed his remarks, Judge Chou spoke movingly about Judge Sweet’s strong leadership and the collegiality of the members of the bench during the crisis, and he thanked members of the bar for continuing to devote volunteer time to the Court and for working with the judges and staff to adapt to remote proceedings and other changes to the Court. He then reported some good news and some bad news about the long-awaited new case management system. The good news is that, after much study, the Court decided on a browser-based case management system and, in the midst of the pandemic, entered into contract for it. Called “eCourt,” from a company called Journal Technologies, it will replace the four antiquated mini-case management systems that the Court currently uses with a single browser-based system, that will, of course, include e-filing. The bad news is that the eCourt system will not be ready to go online until the summer of 2022 and no interim e-filing system is possible. So, for now, we will all have to make do with the system that we have.
BudgetNext, Court CEO James Kim discussed the financial outlook for the Court. This time it was mostly bad news, with a hint of good news. Mr. Kim reported that the courts statewide are currently facing a $200 million budget deficit, which is expected to translate to a $1 million deficit for the Marin Court. At the same time, Court revenues from fees and other local sources are expected to be down $1 million. Together these revenue sources auger a $2 million deficit on a $14 million budget. Not good news at all. One piece of good news is that with well-managed funding allocations, the Court has stabilized its budget and is not having to undertake layoffs or furloughs. The other piece of good news is that, as Judge Chou mentioned in his remarks, funding for the Court’s new case management system has already been locked in from state budget sources.
With all of the news, Judges Sweet and Chou ran out of time for the questions members had submitted. But Judge Sweet promised to respond to them in writing and we will publish the questions and answers when he does. Finally, to wrap up the event, Sue hosted some informal socializing and questions and answers with members of the bar and Judge Haakenson and Judge Howard. Let’s hope that next year’s socializing won’t be via video.