Underfunding from the state and a surge in new cases has put Yolo Superior Court in a precarious position.
Yolo Superior Court dealt with a large increase in case filings last year, according to statistics released early this month. About 45,000 new cases were filed in 2008, where the court saw about 40,000 new cases filed in 2007. Due to the state’s budget problems, the increase in cases was not met by an increase in staff.
“Our caseload has gone up dramatically,” said David Rosenberg, Yolo Superior Court’s presiding judge. “I am not aware of another county in the state with a 17 percent increase.“
James Perry, Yolo Superior’s Court Executive Officer, said the increase in cases is largely a result of growth in Yolo County. All types of cases contributed to the increased filings, including traffic citations, family law and juvenile cases.
Despite the obvious problems of meeting a larger caseload with an overworked staff, the court also achieved a higher disposition rate. The rate of cases resolved or concluded increased to 86 percent in 2008, with 99 percent of felony cases resolved. In 2007, the court had a 76 percent disposition rate overall and 93 percent in felony cases.
“We have to be imaginative here at the Superior Court,” Rosenberg said. “We are terribly understaffed.“
Rosenberg said the court was able to get more cases resolved by changing its approach to the calendaring system. Cases are assigned to a specific judge as soon as they come in. When one judge sees a case from start to finish, judges become familiar with the case and the lawyers, lawyers become familiar with the judges, and downtime is almost eliminated.
Before the new system, trial judges who finished early would not have responsibilities until the next scheduled trial starts. Now judges are constantly working on some aspect of their assigned cases. Rosenberg said the judges like being busy.
“I’m trying to be as creative and innovative as I can be so the wheels of justice can move faster,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said the new system not only gets cases to trial faster, it also gets them resolved before trial. He said lawyers have an incentive to get cases resolved before trial when they think they will be heard in court. If the case is unlikely to go to trial, they can wait it out.
Perry said the court has been able to avoid lay-offs by freezing positions as they open up. Yolo Superior currently has 12.5 judges (one judge is shared with another court). Another judgeship has been approved, but the position hasn’t been filled because there is no funding. Rosenberg said statewide statistics show the court should ideally have 16 judges.
With increased efficiency and its new calendaring system, Yolo Superior Court has managed to continue to function well despite the budget problems. If the state takes back some of the already limited funds or the caseload continues to increase dramatically, the court may not be so lucky.
“For the rest of this year we’re fine,” Perry said. “The uncertainty is next year. Right now we’re unaffected but we just have to see how bad it’s going to be.“
Perry said limited resources would be met by changing priorities. Cases required by law to be heard rapidly would be first. Other cases would have to be put off.
John Oakley, distinguished professor of law at UC Davis‘ School of Law, said continuing to demand high output with limited resources usually leads to sacrifices in quality, especially in the court system. Putting cases on the expanding waiting list would be a serious problem, he said.
“There is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied,” Oakley said. “You can’t just keep putting cases off.“
So far, Yolo Superior Court has not faced this problem. In the past year it was even able to make the waiting list shorter. Still, Rosenberg said he is hoping next year’s statistics don’t show the same increase in case filings.
“We have done a number of things to create efficiencies,” Rosenberg said. “I don’t know if there is a lot more room for efficiencies.“
ELYSSA THOME can be reached at email@example.com.