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JUDGE'S ABSENCE STRAINS SYSTEM MORE CASES SENT TO DOWNTOWN L.A.

Byline: Karen Maeshiro Staff Writer

LANCASTER - The delayed return of Lancaster Superior Court Judge Pamela Rogers, who has been off work since October after having neck surgery, is resulting in more cases being sent out of the Antelope Valley to be tried.

Rogers originally was expected to be back on the bench in January but her leave was extended for six more months because her recovery is taking longer, court officials said. Rogers continues to receive her annual salary of more than $133,000.

``Right now the estimated date for her return, and this is a very rough estimate, is July 1,'' said Kyle Christopherson, a Superior Court spokesman.

Judges were brought into Rogers' courtroom on an as-needed basis to handle certain matters from the time she left until the end of 2001, but her courtroom has been dark since January.

Christopherson said there is a shortage of judges in Los Angeles County and statewide. Currently, there are 19 vacancies among the 429 judgeships in the county, Christopherson said.

``We are lacking judges across the board. The need is weighed on how necessary it is. The overwhelming need to put a judge there is not as great as somewhere else,'' Christopherson said.

Rogers' absence is placing further strain on the Antelope Valley court system, already burdened with a notoriously overcrowded courthouse and a growing caseload.

Between five and 10 felony criminal trials have been transferred to courts in downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere because the Lancaster court didn't have a judge to preside over the cases, court officials said.

``Cases that would be tried in her courtroom have been transferredoutside our area for trial,'' said supervising Lancaster Superior Court Judge Steve Ogden.

``We are already shorthanded when it comes to courts. The Antelope Valley has a caseload that justifies a lot more courts than we have. Anytime we lose a judge it puts further strain on the system,'' said Deputy District Attorney John Portillo, head of the Lancaster office.

Some cases, mainly misdemeanors, are being settled on terms favorable to the defendant, judges and prosecutors said.

``The practical result is cases are being settled on more favorable terms to the defense because of the unavailability of a trial court,'' Ogden said.

Portillo agreed, saying the Antelope Valley does not have enough courts or prosecuting staff to take all cases to trial.

``That's always been the effect of not having enough courts. We are forced to settle cases more cheaply than we might otherwise,'' Portillo said. ``Obviously, due to limited resources, we are forced into settling cases.''

Portillo said this is especially true in misdemeanor cases, such as minor battery or a driving violation.

``It's very difficult for this office to send a DA down to L.A. to try a case because that DA is gone for that period of time to try the case. It makes us one more person short,'' Portillo said. ``Then witnesses have to travel to L.A. It's a great deal of trouble and expense for a misdemeanor case to transfer to L.A.''

``Hopefully when we have a new courthouse, the price of settling misdemeanor cases will go up,'' Portillo added.

The long-awaited $109 million Antelope Valley Courthouse near Avenue M and 10th Street West is under construction and is expected to open sometime next year.

Head Deputy Public Defender Charles Klum said case settlements are a result of ``squeezing too many cases down one funnel.''

``If courts are unavailable to try cases then that in fact forces settlements because the defendant's right to have a trial within certain time limits continues regardless of the availability of courts,'' Klum said.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 21, 2002
Words:611
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