Tardiness and efficiency became the focus of discussion last week in a Stanislaus County courtroom, when a judge rebuked the district attorney's office for being late to a preliminary hearing in an elder abuse case.
Judge Linda McFadden said late prosecutors are stalling court proceedings, and it's becoming an ongoing problem, showing a lack of professionalism.
"This court sat around all morning," McFadden said from the bench. "It really puts a strain on the entire system."
Stanislaus District Attorney Birgit Fladager said the judge's public admonition was uncalled for. Budget cuts have reduced staff levels and imposed 13 furlough days for each prosecutor, who are overwhelmed with cases.
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"The scheduling is a nightmare with staff limitations," Fladager said. "It's a logistical dance that we have to do every day in the courtroom."
A criminal law professor in Sacramento said McFadden took a bold stance on a subject that is rarely broached even in courtrooms where tardiness has become a common occurrence.
The issue flared up Tuesday when the preliminary hearing was set to start at 1:30 p.m. in Department 9. The case involved a man arrested in April on suspicion of punching his 69-year-old mother in their Ceres home. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he reacted violently when he found out his pharmacy couldn't fill his prescription, his mother and sister said in court.
McFadden was presiding over the case, which was being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees, who was juggling multiple cases in different courtrooms. She was handling an attempted kidnapping case when the elder abuse hearing was set to begin.
In a phone call from a bailiff, Fladager said she was told the judge would dismiss the elder abuse case if the district attorney's office wasn't ready for the 1:30 p.m. hearing.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Executive Officer Mike Tozzi said "there is no truth to that accusation at all." McFadden declined to comment further outside of court.
Knowing Rees was still in the middle of another hearing, Fladager sent Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerry Begen to explain why the prosecutor would be late and avoid the case's dismissal.
For about 45 minutes, McFadden and Begen spoke in court about the tardiness issue -- with the judge doing most of the talking.
"That convinced me she had no intention of hearing me speak," Begen later said. "I have never had an encounter with a judge like that in my 24 years (as a prosecutor)."
Tozzi said any exchange between a judge and attorneys is not personal but necessary to maintain an efficient courtroom. "Every judge has an obligation and a duty to control the courtroom," Tozzi said.
The judge also told Begen she might start imposing penalties for tardy attorneys. Begen later said Stanislaus County judges have imposed fines a few times before to make a point, but most of the fines were lifted soon after.
McFadden said having victims, witnesses and police officials waiting around for attorneys is not acceptable.
"My concern is controlling this courtroom and making this courtroom as efficient as possible," McFadden said. "I don't think this is the kind of behavior you should expect from professional attorneys."
Begen said Rees was in the middle of another preliminary hearing, or else she would be there. "You said some derogatory things, but I absolutely reject them," he said.
Fladager said the number of prosecutors, 36, has dropped to about the same level as in 1996. Stanislaus County prosecutors and public defenders were handed 9 percent spending cuts to help balance a $23 million county budget deficit.
"There's just not enough attorneys," said Chief Deputy Public Defender Kent Faulk- ner. You're always going to have situations where attorneys are overbooked."
Budget cuts worsen problem, expert says
Criminal law Professor Michael Vitiello said the problem of tardy attorneys has been exacerbated by budget cuts and reduced staffing.
"But the (district attorney's) office has to deal with that issue, and so do the taxpayers," said Vitiello of the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law.
When asked whether there are many judges who threatened to dismiss cases because of tardy attorneys, Vitiello said "no, but it might not be such a bad idea. This pattern of sloppiness has been going on too long."
He called the alleged threat by McFadden a "bazooka" tactic. He said judges have imposed fines for tardy attorneys before, but it happens rarely. "It looks like the judge is fed up, otherwise the judge wouldn't have pulled out the heavy artillery," Vitiello said.
McFadden moved from Juvenile Court to Criminal Court in January. Before that, she worked as a prosecutor for the district attorney's office for 13 years.
McFadden's rebuke in court Tuesday ended when Rees showed up. Begen walked out, and the hearing started, lasting less than 20 minutes.
The defendant pleaded no contest to a felony count of elder abuse. McFadden sentenced him to 300 days in county jail, four years of probation and a protection order not to hit his mother again.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge told the defendant, "thank you for being here."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.