MERCED — The advent of a new year means changes at the Merced County Superior Court, including the way judges are assigned cases.
Court officials on Wednesday switched to a direct calendar system, which assigns judges cases based on the final digits on each case file.
Under the court's prior master calendar system, felony cases and trials were assigned to each courtroom by a judge. Officials said that process was time consuming because of the court's booming caseload. That caseload is more than double the state average for superior courts.
With the direct calendar, felony cases with file numbers ending in 1-3 will be assigned to Judge Mark Bacciarini, felony cases ending in 4-6 will be assigned to Judge Marc Garcia and cases ending in 7-9 will be assigned to Judge Ronald Hansen. There won't be any cases with numbers ending in 0, court officials said.
Misdemeanor cases will be assigned to a courtroom based on whether the case number is even or odd.
Among the advantages of the new system is that each case generally will remain with the same judge from beginning to end.
"(The case) doesn't slip through the cracks. There's continuity because you have the same judge handling it," said Brian McCabe, the superior court's presiding judge.
Linda Romero Soles, superior court executive officer, said cases will now be more equally distributed among the judges. Officials hope the direct calendar will result in fewer continuances and a smaller backlog of unresolved cases.
McCabe said he believes a more efficient calendar system and fewer court continuances will make the process more precise for people called for jury duty and law enforcement officers who testify.
"Instead of loading up 30 trials on one day, each court's responsible for managing their calendar," McCabe said. "This is a win-win for everybody here. The efficiencies here are glaring."
If a judge ends up with a case in which there's a conflict of interest, Romero Soles said, a calendar clerk would reassign the case to another judge.
The calendar switch is the result of grants the court received. That led to a case management analysis by the National Center of State Courts and State Justice Institute, Romero Soles said.
Representatives of those groups met with Merced court officials, pulled individual cases and conducted surveys examining how well they were handled when compared with national and state standards. Based on recommendations from the representatives, Merced court officials said they decided to move to a direct calendar.
Changing to the direct calendar comes at no cost to the court system, according to Romero Soles, and may save money in the long run by reducing overtime for court personnel.
Before launching the direct calendar the court formed a review team composed of retired Judge Frank Dougherty, Interim Public Defender Eric Dumars and Chief Deputy District Attorney Rob Carroll to examine the county's felony cases.
The team looked at the county's felony cases to determine which could be resolved without going to trial to start off the new calendar system with a more manageable caseload.
Officials said there have been no complaints from Merced County's legal community about the direct calendar system.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said McCabe was keen on informing all of those involved with the system about the new calendar and getting feedback from them.
Morse said he's hopeful the new system will result in greater continuity with court cases, and that those involved will have greater familiarity with each case's issues.
"The objective that (Judge McCabe) is attempting to implement is a good one," Morse said. "Judge McCabe has done a really good job of soliciting (opinions from) a really broad spectrum of people in the system to figure out how this will all work."
Begins this week
Dumars, who sat on the court's review team, said the new calendar system will be tested this week because court business is back in full swing after the holidays.
He said he's optimistic the new calendar will be more efficient and will expedite cases. "I am hopeful it's a good thing and people can spend less time in court," Dumars said.
Carroll, another member of the review team, said fewer court continuances will be easier on victims, who often must wait for long periods before a case is resolved. "We're encouraged by everything that's been done and we think it's going to work," Carroll said.
McCabe said numerous counties statewide have been using a direct calendar for years, and a similar system exists in Los Banos. "We're not reinventing the wheel. We're simply borrowing what others have done and found success with," he said.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or email@example.com.