Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Uncertainty causes cases to resolve?

In Orange County, where the cases are plentiful and the funds are tight, we have a judge who plays a kind of "Russian Roulette" with his trial docket and costs the taxpayers more money than is necessary.

Having worked in the prosecutor's office in a substantially smaller jurisdiction (population 120,000), the learning curve I experienced when starting this program was a bit daunting.

In Orange County, each judge has his/her own division where their cases are heard. There are 12 felony divisions, a similar number of misdemeanor divisions, plus several judges that do trial assistance for the divisions on a rotating basis.

To view a flow chart of the process a criminal case takes through the courts, click here.

During part of the calendar each month there are a couple of weeks where various motions are heard. These can include pretrial motions/hearings (e.g., bond motions, motion to suppress evidence, a motion to modify terms of pretrial release, etc.) or post conviction hearings (e.g., sentencing, violation of probation, etc.). Once a case has its "pretrial conference" during this period, all pretrial motions, depositions, and other matters are supposed to be completed. The trial period begins approximately 10 days later.

When you have a trial date, your case will be set for the first day of a 2 or 3 week trial period. Obviously, not all of those cases will be heard that day. The court does a triage (which is incredibly chaotic to those not familiar with the process) and determines which cases on its docket really will be going to trial during that 2 or 3 week period. The rest of the cases either get continued or resolved in some fashion - usually being "nolle prossed" (i.e., dropped) or pled out.

Here's where we get to the "Russian Roulette."

During Judge Tim Shea's trial periods, dockets are issued on a day-to-day basis, unlike other divisions who set trials by Thursday or Friday for the upcoming week. Dockets for his division during the non-trial period are distributed a week or more in advance.

An observer in his courtroom noted that both the State and Public Defenders have requested more than one day's notice for trial - giving them adequate time to prepare, to have witnesses ready, etc.

They were told by the judge that "uncertainty causes cases to resolve."

Uncertainty causes cases to resolve?

Does the judge prefer to have cases either plead out or dropped because a victim or other witness is unavailable at his whim? Are victims and other witnesses (both for the State and Defense) expected to drop what they're doing and be available at a moment's notice during the entire 2 or 3 week trial period?

What happened to providing justice to our citizens? Witnesses often have jobs and/or childcare for which arrangements need to be made. For out-of-town witnesses, the State pays exhorbitant transportation costs when all they have is one day's notice of trial.

Defendants, whose freedoms are at stake, are supposed to be represented by an attorney who is not as prepared as they could be with just a few extra days notice?

It seems as though Judge Shea enjoys creating uncertainty in his courtroom.

The citizens of Orange County deserve better.


  1. That's par for the course in Judge Shea's courtroom. He regularly strong arms defendants to plea and of course this makes it easier for him to play that game. The prosecutors end up giving better plea bargains when they have difficulty getting witnesses ready since everything is last minute.

  2. and "justice" and society suffer to feed the ego of this power hungry civil servant!

  3. I happened to pop into Judge Shea's courtroom late this morning and witnessed a heated exchange between him and one of the prosecutors. His face was red and his voice was raised. I don't know the content of the discussion, but the prosecutor was appealing a decision. She was told that there would be a trial today anyway and that she'd better make sure her witnesses were ready. He then summoned a jury.

  4. Interesting note: If at the PreTrial conference, the attorneys announce they are ready for trial, and all motions have been disposed of, why is J. Shaw wrong is holding the attorneys to their word? Where does "ready" means "ready in one day"? Seems to me, a lay person, that the judge refuses to play games and when the attorneys say they are ready, he will hold them to their word. If a case has witness issues, then pretrial seems to be the right time to address that, no? When the stakes are high, as you posted, then attorneys need to be ready, at a moments notice. The sheer number of cases prevent the type of catering you are advocating for. All this I deduced from your post.

  5. Unfortunately, tirades in Judge Shea's courtroom are not uncommon. In my experience (only 10+ years as a trial lawyer, so maybe I don't know much), I've found that a good judge rarely needs to raise his or her voice to control the courtroom, and NEVER needs to yell or scream at the attorneys.

  6. Having been in Judge Shea's courtroom many times as a defense attorney, I know first hand that Judge Shea's "system" works. It is the State Attorney's obligation to inform him at pre-trial conference or any other time prior to trial call if a victim or witness has an issue and he is very accommodating, but he dislikes when the State Attorney represents to the Court that they are ready for trial and do not contact victims or witness until the last minute and discover issues. If his "system" were to change, then his division would end up like most other felony divisions where cases are in danger of being lost to speedy trial or dropped because of the backlog and volume of cases. Then, victims have no opportunity to get their day in Court. The fact that Judge Shea might raise his voice, does not take away the fact that he is a fair judge. An attorney being unprepared IS a reason for a Judge to be upset.