Jurists Say Riverside Courts Rife With Delays

Riverside County judges delay too many hearings and the system is so poor at scheduling that it can take months for a case to be heard, according to an outside panel of judges sent to help reduce a massive backlog.

A ``strike force'' of a dozen judges from other counties was dispatched by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George in June to help deal with 1,300 pending criminal cases. Six of the ``strike team'' judges will remain until next June.

The backlog forced the civil courts to shut down so their jurists could be used for criminal cases, and several misdemeanor cases were dismissed because the deadline for a speedy trial wasn't met.

The outside judges reduced the backlog to 1,206 cases, down by 100 from two months ago, Riverside County Presiding Judge Richard Fields said.

``Now we're in a slow and steady downward path,'' he said.

However, George said last week that court officials ``could improve upon some of their procedures.''

``There's some local culture that needs to be overcome,'' said J. Richard Couzens, a retired Placer County judge who manages the strike team.

Court officials contend that they lack enough judges to deal with a soaring population; Riverside County gained 500,000 residents in the past decade. However, neighboring San Bernardino County has more filings per judge and was able to continue civil hearings.

San Bernardino courts have more pretrial settlements, however.

Among other things, Couzens said, Riverside jurists must reduce the number of continuances they grant.

The judges have begun doing that by requiring lawyers to submit continuance requests in writing so they can be reviewed, Fields said.

Meanwhile, the county is scheduled to get 21 new judgeships by 2009. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already has approved 14 new positions.

Also, a committee composed of local attorneys, prosecutors and state court officials is working on a report suggesting improvements in case management, which could start taking effect in March.

``The bench has been willing to consider anything that has been suggested,'' Couzens said. ``We hope we can be a catalyst for some change.''