Friday, December 04, 2009

Gomez v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 20, 2009)

It's not that I disagree with anything that Justice Scotland says in the first paragraph of this opinion. Which reads:

"State prison inmates are a litigious bunch when it comes to filing writ petitions challenging conditions of confinement or raising a multitude of other grievances. The plethora of paperwork has a disproportionate impact on trial courts in counties where state prisons are located--many of which are small county courts. For example, there are two separate prison facilities housing approximately 11,000 inmates in Lassen County, which has only two trial court judges."

Prisoners are indeed litigious. With much time on their hands (and, as I would hope everyone would recognize, occasionally with some meritorious claims). This means that rural counties in which large prisons are located (and that's often where we put them, in places out-of-the-way to everyone except those who live them) have to deal with a disproportionately heavy workload.

Though, if it were me, I'd say that the right thing to do in such a setting would be to appoint more judges in such areas. Rather than approve, through judicial fiat, a difficult and arguably unconstitutional regime in which commissioners basically decide all of the prisoner petitions that come before the court. A practice especially troubling, even beyond the history and importance of the Great Writ, given the requirement of Article VI of the California Constitution, which allows commissioners the power only to exercise "subordinate" judicial duties. Something that hardly seems to describe the dismissal of habeas claims on the merits.

Plus, a commissioner costs just about as much as a judge, right? Judge appoint more of the latter and replace fewer of the former. How tough is that.

Nonetheless, the Court of Appeal decides that dismissing habeas claims is indeed a "subordinate" judicial duty on a huge procedural technicality, holding that because the habeas claim isn't "filed" until it's been determined that it establishes a prima facie case, commissioners can indeed decide the merits of these petitions at the pleading stage. To which I'll add that under this same theory, commissioners also would be exercising "subordinate" judicial power if they simply took all of the habeas petitions and dumped them in the shredder. That'd be just fine too.