Citing what he calls a “crisis” in San Bernardino County’s court system, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly said he plans to introduce a bill that would add 12 new judicial positions a year for the next seven years.
In an interview Monday with the Mountain News, the Twin Peaks Republican said he is working on a bill to close the gap between the 91 judicial positions the county currently has and the at least 156 it needs.
“We’re the fastest-growing county in California and the most underfunded in this area,” Donnelly said, attributing the lack of enough judges and magistrates to “politics.”
With the $850 million surplus Donnelly said Gov. Jerry Brown has announced for the 2013-14 state budget, “something that would earmark about $1 million a year” shouldn’t be controversial, the assemblyman said.
Donnelly said he expects the language of his proposed bill to be sent back to his office from the state’s legislative counsel sometime this week.
Donnelly said the county needs more judges because “it’s a critical duty to administer justice. Having enough judges is as important as paving streets and fixing potholes. It’s not optional like a high-speed train. Without enough judges the whole (criminal justice) system shuts down.”
To quantify the scope of the need, he said, San Francisco City and County need 59 judges but have 65, while in San Diego County, 158 judicial positions are needed and 154 currently are filled.
“In San Bernardino County we’ve eliminated so many positions, and we’re closing three courthouses,” Donnelly said. “The Twin Peaks court was already closed. Six million dollars is all that’s needed.”
Prior to the onset of the recession in 2008, San Bernardino County was due dozens of new judges, but they have never been funded.
If he can get his bill through both houses of the Democrat-controlled legislature and signed by the governor intact, he said, the county would get 12 additional judicial positions each year for seven years. That number would bring the San Bernardino County Superior Court to 95 percent of the number of judges, magistrates and commissioners the Judicial Council has said are needed, Donnelly said.
According to www.courts.ca.gov, the Judicial Council is the policymaking body of the California courts and is responsible for ensuring the consistent, independent, impartial and accessible administration of justice in this state.
Donnelly said he believes an awareness of the seriousness of the judge shortage may have taken root on Feb. 12 at a meeting of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, chaired by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont).
After hearing testimony in favor of more judges, presented by Superior Court Presiding Judge Marsha G. Slough and the mayors of Barstow and Hesperia, Wieckowski commented on how San Bernardino County now accounts for more than 11 percent of the state’s population.
“The chairman said he had no idea” the need was so great, Donnelly said.
In her testimony, Slough said a large portion of the county will have no nearby courthouse as of May 3. In Gov. Brown’s new budget, some $200 million was moved from new court construction to the state’s general fund.
The assemblyman said he is “reaching out for support from among all the Inland Empire caucus, Republicans and Democrats. This affects our county,” he said.