Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Entente Design v. Superior Court (Cal. Ct. App. - March 12, 2013)

I think this is right.

There are fairly strict time limits within which you can "paper" a judge, but they vary depending on whether you're assigned a "master calendar" judge or a judge for all purposes or some other type of judge.  The thing is, in reality, those lines blur.

For example, here in San Diego (where this case is from), we generally assign civil cases to a judge for all purposes, and did so here.  But the trial judge who got the case -- Judge Meyer -- was busy at the point at which the case was scheduled to go to trial.  This is far from a unique circumstance; it happens all the time.  So Judge Meyer sees who's available, finds out that Judge Vargas is free, so tells everyone that Judge Vargas is their trial judge and to walk down the hall to clear things with Judge Vargas forthwith.  Which the parties do.

So everything's fine, and Judge Vargas says, yep, I'm free, see you in five days when the trial starts.  An hour later, one of the parties papers Judge Vargas.

But the trial court ruled that was too late.  That they needed to say something to Judge Meyer at the time it got assigned to Judge Vargas, not after.  Not even an hour after.  Whereas the party that filed the papers says they needed to consult with their client and make sure about the proper timing of the papering, which is why it took 'em an hour, and that this was proper.  So files a writ.  Which, among other thing, the Superior Court of San Diego itself chimes in on, claiming that the procedure that it employed (requiring contemporaneous papering) was both permissible and valuable.

But Justice McConnell disagrees.  Finding that Judge Meyer wasn't clearly a "master calendar" judge under these circumstances since he was originally appointed as a judge for all purposes, so it wouldn't be right to apply the master calendar exception.

I think that Justice McConnell makes the right call.  The statute assumes a bright line between who's a "master calendar" judge and other types of judges, and unfortunately, in practice, that's not at all the case always.  I could totally understand why the parties here were unclear as to when they had to (or were permitted) to paper Judge Vargas, particularly given the San Diego Superior Court's express rule that cases are either assigned to a master calendar courtroom or to a judge for all purposes.  It's undisputed that the latter occurred here, when it went to Judge Meyer, so it makes sense that counsel didn't necessarily think that Judge Meyer was acting as the former when he was figuring out to whom to boot the case for trial.

Nonetheless, while I agree with the Court of Appeal's disposition, I'm also sympathetic to the trial court's position.  Judge Meyer was booting the case for trial, which was going to happen shortly; i.e., in five days.  It simply doesn't make sense to give the parties the normal period -- ten days, by which time the trial would have started -- to bounce the guy.  Moreover, from an efficiency standpoint, it makes eminent sense to require a contemporaneous objection.  Judge Meyer's calling courtrooms and picking his replacement now.  It doesn't make sense to take a break, wait five days (or even an hour), and then bounce someone.  We're on the phone now, so if you want to object, let's hear it.  So I can see where the trial court's coming from.

For this reason, were I writing the opinion -- or were I the San Diego Superior Court figuring out how to respond to the Court of Appeal's ruling -- I think I'd suggest a simple solution.  Simply craft (or at the appellate level suggest the crafting of) a modified rule that clearly states that whenever a trial judge is assigned for all purposes, that judge automatically turns into a master calendar judge, and acts in that capacity, if he subsequently declares herself unavailable for trial and purports to assign the parties for trial to another courtroom.  That rule would make sense.  If there were such a rule, the duty to object (e.g., paper the judge) would be contemporaneous.  And, given the presence of the rule, the parties would be on notice of it and required to respond accordingly.

Problem solved.  Everybody happy.

Short of that, however, this is the right result.