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Last night reporter Aidan McGloin and I attended a bench bar symposium where Presiding Judge R. Glenn Yabuno gave a state of the court address for San Bernardino County. The theme was generally that things are getting better. The state of the court address for Riverside County I attended before that had basically the same theme. Both presentation used the word “optimistic.”

Read McGloin's coverage of the San Bernardino event here.

When I first started overseeing court coverage, I ventured into conversations with attorneys thinking there was a backlog because of the pandemic shutdown. I got a tick-tock head movement in response as people tried to tell me gently that I had just exposed a lot of ignorance. Well, yes, they would say, but that’s just a pixel in the big picture.

I heard our counties’ shares of the state budget described as disproportionately and shamefully low. I learned our judge-vacancy numbers are historically high, we don’t have enough courtrooms to process our caseload, and (one attorney said the biggest issue is) there aren’t enough court reporters.

“State resources are insufficient to meet the legal needs of this county,” and that has led to case dismissals, said Riverside Superior Presiding Judge Judith Clark, speaking to the Desert Bar Association Jan. 13. The court has the third highest filing ration in the state, she said. “Riverside County has suffered a chronic lack of resources. We need 22 more judicial officers for the current caseload.”

Judith Clarke

Yabuno reported that San Bernardino County got more new judges and more funding than we’ve had in decades, but we still don’t have enough.

To a legal-industry outsider like me, it sounds like the sky is falling. Our access to justice is supposed to be guaranteed in the Constitution. Everyone is acting calm. Should we not all be panicking a little bit?

Both of the recent updates made one thing clear: There are good minds steering us through these choppy waters. The courts are employing new technology, adjusting policy, reprioritizing, innovating quickly taking advantage of the opportunity transition offers to improve equity and inclusivity in all elements of the justice system.

Both counties are getting creative to process criminal cases on time.

Clark said Riverside Superior Court is using civil and retired judges to help, and has re-designated several departments as criminal trial courts.

She gave numbers: Between March, 2020 and September, 2022, Riverside had 40 emergency orders related to case management procedures. When the last emergency order expired, they had a backlog of 2,800 criminal trials.

One of the first things she did was assign two new judges to family law.

“One of the consequences of the pandemic is the stress on families,” she said. “For children who are in families in crisis, the consequences can be life long. It’s important to provide a forum for families to address those needs and get them mitigated.”

Both courts are re-assigning court reporters from civil cases.

“We just are not adding court reporters, and many of them are choosing to retire or go into the private sector,” Clark said. “It became necessary for us to move them to cases where they are mandated. We also of course need to maximize what we can for criminal trials, so we changed our court rules.”

Clark painted the same picture Yabuno did. There is an extreme reduction of people applying to court reporter education programs and a small percentage passing the state exam. Yabuno said in 2018 the passing rate was 8%, and that was out of a diminished pool because enrollment dropped more than 50% in the past 10 years.

“You may be hearing ‘Soon there will be no (court) reporters.’ That is not on the table yet,” Yabuno said.

One of the points Yabuno had throughout his address was that the county needs judges but, “Where are they going to go? We are out of space.” Clark had good news on that front for Riverside. Construction is under way on two new courthouses, in Indio and Menifee, which should both open in 2024.

San Bernardino is turning to technology to make up some of the difference, especially for county residents who live hours from a court building. The desert is underserved, Yabuno said, in probate in particular.

Technology wise in Riverside, they are expanding their online portal for law enforcement officers and implementing e-court for case management. Clark said the court will complete migrating cases to that system this year.

Riverside courtrooms have been capable of transitioning to remote proceedings since before it was imperative, which Clark called “very fortunate.” Having this technology in place will be a boon if they later become allowed to record proceedings in lieu of in-room court reporters, which Clark called inevitable, even though the reporting union has been fighting hard to prevent it. Yabuno said San Bernardino is not currently recording, but is equipping every courtroom in the county with recording ability, just in case.

Regarding funding, Yabuno said despite looking at a $2 billion a month shortfall in the state budget, “right now we are in good shape.” Usually the court is 74% funded, but this year it’s 91% funded.

Year-end updates in Riverside included that they are recruiting nationwide for a new court executive officer; in 2022 then-Presiding Judge John Monterosso established committees for education, outreach and to eliminate bias; and 50 families adopted 80 children at an event in December at the courthouse.

So the sky is not falling, but our courts appear to be addressing crises as fast and well as they can.

In her final remarks, Clark said that during the pandemic, civil operations were shut down entirely, which hindsight does not applaud. “We must keep civil departments open,” she said. “We have an incredibly dedicated civil bench. We’re using them for last-day criminal trials, but not as a blanket rule.”

Yabuno said San Bernardino learned the same lesson. “Should there be another crisis like the pandemic we will never shut down the courts again,” he said.

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