McGeorge School of Law

Proposition 48

Proposition 48:
Court Consolidation.
Legislative Constitutional Amendment.

By Lindsay S. Harrington

Copyright © 2002 by University of the McGeorge School of Law

JD, McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific
to be conferred May 2003
B.A., Political Science, University of California, Davis, 1997

Table of Contents

I. Executive Summary
II. The History of California's Trial Court Consolidation
III. The Law
IV. Drafting Issues
V. Constitutional Issues
VI. Public Policy Considerations
VII. Conclusion

I. Executive Summary

At the request of the Legislature, the California Law Revision Commission (CLRC) has made recommendations on repealing statutes that are obsolete because of reform within the trial court system, including those resulting from consolidation. Cal. Gov't Code § 71674 (Deering 2002). These recommendations led to the unanimous passage of Proposition 48 through both houses of the Legislature. Ballot Pamphlet, Prop. 48, General Election 14 (Nov. 5, 2002).

Proposition 48 follows the passage of Proposition 220, which provided for the voluntary consolidation of California's trial courts. Proposition 48, also known as Assembly Constitutional Amendment 15, proposes to California voters a series of changes to the State Constitution. Cal. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 15, 2001-2002 Reg. Sess. 1 (June 27, 2002) (available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/billinfo.html). It would amend sections 1, 6, 8, 10, 15, and 16 of, amend and repeal section 23 of, and repeal section 5 of, Article VI of the California Constitution relating to trial court consolidation. Id. Proposition 48 places on the ballot technical changes to the California Constitution recommended by the CLRC to reflect court unification and the elimination of municipal courts. Id. The amendment creates a sunset date of January 1, 2007, for the transitional provisions included in the Constitution to govern during the implementation of unification. Id.

II. The History of California's Trial Court Consolidation

In 1906, Roscoe Pound, a former Dean of Harvard Law School, referred to the system of American courts as "archaic in its multiplicity of courts, preservation of concurrent jurisdictions, and waste of judicial power." Judicial Council of California, Trial Court Unification Fact Sheet 1 (July 2002) (available at ). Since 1990, the State Bar and the Judicial Council have been promoting efforts to coordinate the California superior and municipal courts in order to achieve efficiency and economy in providing court services to the public. Id. In 1991, the Legislature passed the Trial Court Realignment and Efficiency Act. Res. Ch. 90, Statutes of 1991 (AB 1297); Cal. Gov't Code § 68112 (Deering 2002). This Act made the courts responsible for developing organization plans and submitting them to the Judicial Council. Id. In 1997, passage of the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act marked the State's assumption of responsibility for trial court funding. Cal. Gov't Code §§ 77000-77655 (Deering 2002). Each individual county had funded its own trial courts before this legislation.

Proposition 220, which California voters approved in 1998, permitted superior and municipal courts, known as "trial courts," within a county to voluntarily consolidate their operations if approved by a majority vote of the superior court judges and municipal court judges in the county. California voters approved this legislative constitutional amendment during the June 2, 1998 election with 64.5 percent of the vote. Comm. Analysis of ACA 15, Assembly Comm. on Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments 2 (Apr. 2, 2002). Since its approval, all counties have chosen to consolidate the operations of superior courts and municipal courts. Id. However, because consolidation was voluntary, the 1998 initiative revisions did not eliminate municipal courts.

The last of the three major trial court reform bills of the 1990s was the Trial Court Employment Protection and Governance Act (TCEPGA). Cal. Gov't Code §§ 71600-71674. This legislation transferred control of trial court employment to the courts. Since then, the Legislature has moved continuously towards completion of the courts' restructuring to attain an enhanced judicial system. Comm. Analysis of ACA 15 at 2-3.

In the beginning, proposals to unify the state's trial courts stirred considerable debate. Proponents and opponents alike agreed that coordination of the courts would lead to economic and operational efficiencies while providing greater access to justice at a decreased cost. However, opponents had numerous objections to consolidation. Opponents believed that consolidation might reduce the pool of applicants for judgeships, proposed countywide elections might violate the Federal Voting Rights Act, and that consolidation was generally unnecessary because of the current efforts to reorganize. Sen. Jud. Comm., Hearing on Court Consolidation, SCA 4, 1995-96 Reg. Sess. (Mar. 28, 1995).

Through the efforts of the Legislature and the Judicial Council, California trial courts have improved to eliminate duplication of administrative systems and use judicial resources more efficiently. Trial court consolidation allows the superior court to assume jurisdiction over all matters handled previously by superior and municipal courts. Therefore, municipal court judges became superior court judges, which effectively eliminated the municipal courts. Since Proposition 220 passed, all fifty-eight California counties have voted to consolidate their trial court operations. Ballot Pamphlet at 15.

III. The Law

 

A. Existing Law

 

 

The California Constitution provides for the division of each county into municipal court districts. Article VI, section 5(e) provides for the elimination of municipal courts within a county and for the establishment of a unified superior court for that county, upon a majority vote of superior court judges and a majority vote of municipal county judges within the county. Cal. Const. art. VI, § 5(e);Res. Ch. 36, Statutes of 1996 (SCA 4).

Article VI, section 1 vests the judicial power of the state in the Supreme Court, courts of appeal, superior courts, and municipal courts.

Article VI, section 5 provides for the organization of municipal court districts and municipal courts.

Article VI, section 6 provides that Judicial Council shall consist of the Chief Justice, one other judge of the Supreme Court, three judges of the courts of appeal, five judges of superior courts, five judges of municipal courts, two nonvoting court administrators and any other nonvoting members as determined by the voting membership of the council, each appointed by the Chief Justice for a three-year term, four members of the State Bar appointed by its governing body for three-year terms, and one member of each house of the Legislature appointed as provided by the house.

Article VI, section 8 provides that the Commission on Judicial Performance consists of one judge of a court of appeal, one judge of a superior court, and one judge of a municipal court, each appointed by the Supreme Court, two members of the State Bar of California who have practiced law for ten years, appointed by the Governor, and six citizens who are not judges, retired judges, or members of the State Bar, two appointed by the Governor, two by the Senate Rules Committee, and two by the Speaker of the Assembly.

Article VI, section 10 provides that the Supreme Court, courts of appeal, superior courts and their judges have original jurisdiction in specified matters, and that Superior Courts have original jurisdiction in all other causes except those given by statute to other trial courts.

Article VI, section 15 requires that a person have been a member of the State Bar or have served as a judge of a court of record for the five years immediately preceding that person's selection as a municipal court judge. Existing law provides for the election of municipal and superior court judges at general elections.

Article VI, section 23 establishes the use of transitional procedures during the period of unification of the trial courts.

California law directs the CLRC to recommend removal of provisions of law made obsolete by trial court restructuring. Cal. Govt. Code §71674. On February 8, 2001, California trial courts completed consolidation. Statutes Made Obsolete by Trial Court Restructuring: Part 1, 31 Cal. L. Revision Comm'n Reports 1 (2002) (available at ). All fifty-eight counties have merged their superior and municipal courts. Ballot Pamphlet at 15. There have been no municipal courts since this date.

B. Changes Proposed by Proposition 48

 

Currently, various references to municipal courts remain in the California Constitution. Proposition 48 would make technical changes within the California Constitution related to trial court consolidation. Id. The CLRC suggested the relevant conforming changes to the existing law. This legislative constitutional amendment deletes all obsolete provisions relating to the creation of municipal courts, eligibility requirements for municipal court judges, and the consolidation of municipal and superior courts. Legislative Analyst's Office, Proposition 48 (accessed Oct. 1, 2002).

Proposition 48 also makes conforming changes to the California Constitution affecting the membership of superior court judges on the California Judicial Council and the membership of the Commission on Judicial Performance. The California Judicial Council manages the trial courts. The Commission on Judicial Performance processes complaints against trial court judges. Id.

Specifically, Proposition 48:

 

· deletes a reference to municipal courts in section 1 of Article VI of the California Constitution, vesting the judicial power of the State in its various courts.

· repeals section 5 of Article VI of the California Constitution, which governs the organization of the municipal court districts.

· provides under section 6(a) of Article VI that the Judicial Council shall consist of the Chief Justice, one other judge of the Supreme Court, three judges of the courts of appeal, ten judges of superior courts, two nonvoting court administrators and any other nonvoting members as determined by the voting membership of the council, each appointed by the Chief Justice for a three year term; four members of the State Bar appointed by its governing body for three year terms, and one member of each house of the Legislature appointed as provided by the house.

· provides under section 8(a) of Article VI that the Commission on Judicial Performance consists of one judge of a court of appeal and two judges of superior courts, each appointed by the Supreme Court; two members of the State Bar of California who have practiced law for ten years, appointed by the Governor, and six citizens who are not judges, retired judges, or members of the State Bar, two appointed by the Governor, two by the Senate Rules Committee, and two by the Speaker of the Assembly.

· eliminates under section 10 of Article VI a reference to original jurisdiction for trial courts other than superior courts.

· eliminates under section 15 of Article VI those provisions setting standards for eligibility to be a municipal court judge and provisions regarding the election of municipal court judges.

· creates under section 23 of Article VI a sunset date of January 1, 2007, for transitional provisions governing the implementation of the unification of municipal and superior courts. These provisions govern the transition of the courts' employees, records and proceedings. As of this date, these transitional provisions will be repealed. Cal. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 15, 2001-2002 Reg. Sess. 1 (June 27, 2002) (available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/billinfo.html); Comm. Analysis of ACA 15, Assembly Comm. on Jud. 1-2 (Apr. 9, 2002).

 

The proposed amendments reflect unification of the municipal and superior courts pursuant to Article VI, section 5(e). The repeal of section 5 also reflects this unification but further deletes the requirement of subdivision (a) mandating the division of each county into municipal court districts as provided by statute. These statutes provide for the formation of judicial districts. The CLRC has determined that these statutes have continued application for legal publication purposes. Cal. Govt. Code §§71042.5-71042.6 (Deering 2002). The repeal of section 5 would not affect these statutes. California Law Revision Commission, Fact Sheet on Proposition 48, 2 (July 31, 2002) (available at ).

The amendment to Article VI, section 10 would not affect the power of the Legislature to create divisions within the superior court, such as the small claims court, juvenile court, or administrative tribunals that made adjudicative decisions, subject to judicial review. Id. at 4.

In instances where the existing provisions of the Constitution provide for appointment of municipal court judges to Judicial Council and the Commission of Judicial Performance, Proposition 48 substitutes the appointment of superior court judges. Therefore, instead of having five municipal court judges and five superior court judges, the Judicial Council will consist of ten superior court judges. The Commission on Judicial Performance will consist of two superior court judges instead of one superior court judge and one municipal court judge. Id.

Proposition 48 preserves the transitional provisions regarding implementation of unification through January 1, 2007. As of this date, repeal of those provisions would occur. These transitional provisions govern matters relating to court employees, records, and proceedings upon unification, in addition to procedures in cases where a matter was subject to rehearing in superior court or within the appellate jurisdiction of the superior court. Id. Because consolidation is already complete, these transitional provisions are virtually unnecessary.

Proposition 48 would not result in additional costs to state or local government.

IV. Drafting Issues

There does not appear to be any significant drafting issues within Proposition 48. Proposition 48 is a cleanup initiative. Without Proposition 48's proposed deletion of language involving municipal courts, confusion as to the structure of the California trial courts will certainly remain. Proposition 48 prunes deadwood from the California Constitution to reflect the voice of the people in their prior approval of Proposition 220 in 1998, thereby authorizing the consolidation of California's trial courts. Ballot Pamphlet at 17.

After the passage of Proposition 220, the Legislature commissioned the CLRC to review all statutes affected by consolidation and to identify revisions needed to implement it. Because Proposition 220 allowed voluntary unification of a county's trial courts, California statutes had to continue to provide for the operation of both unified and non-unified court systems. Proposition 220 preserved existing distinctions between the two-tier systems while providing for a single superior court within each county. Judicial Council of California, Proposition 220: Voluntary Trial Court Unification, 5 (July 1998) (available at ). Now that all counties have voluntarily consolidated, the need for these distinctions within the law is unnecessary. Proposition 48 will reflect completed consolidation throughout the state within the California Constitution.

Since unification is complete throughout California, Proposition 48 involves only those statutory provisions of the California Constitution relating to trial court consolidation. However, the CLRC continues to review statutes focusing on possible future cleanup stemming from ongoing general restructuring of California's trial court system. Fact Sheet on Proposition 48 at 2; see also Statutes Made Obsolete by Trial Court Restructuring: Part 1, at 1. General statutes referencing individual municipal courts need further clarification and continued efforts to remove obsolete language from the law. Additionally, repeal or revision of county-specific statutes referencing individual municipal courts must take place to reflect restructuring. Due to the sheer volume of obsolete statutory material, future cleanup statutes will be required. Statutes Made Obsolete by Trial Court Restructuring: Part 1 at 3.

V. Constitutional Issues

Article XVIII of the California Constitution provides that a majority of the voters must approve all state constitutional amendments. Proposed constitutional amendments, such as Proposition 48, are required to appear on the statewide ballot and pass with a majority vote before it can take effect. The Legislature may submit to the voters an amendment or revision of the state Constitution. Id. The passage of Assembly Constitutional Amendment 15, now known as Proposition 48, by two-thirds vote of the Legislature placed the proposed amendments to the California Constitution on the November 2002 ballot. These changes will only go into effect if approved by a majority of the voters. Id.

VI. Public Policy Considerations

Before the passage of Proposition 220, one criticism of consolidation was that it required all judges to become generalists and did not allow courts to use the unique expertise of some judges to handle specialized calendars or actions. However, trial court unification did not foreclose the possibility that courts may use the expertise of certain judges to handle primarily specialized trial courts by assignment and calendar practices at the local level. Sen. Jud. Comm., Hearing on Court Consolidation, SCA 4, 1995-96 Reg. Sess. (Mar. 28, 1995).

While all trial court judges are superior court judges, there are still some differences. Before consolidation, superior courts had jurisdiction over civil actions involving $25,000 or more, family law, juvenile, probate, and felony matters. Id. An appellate department of the superior court heard appeals of misdemeanor and civil cases from municipal courts. Municipal courts had jurisdiction over misdemeanors, infractions, civil actions under $25,000, traffic violations, and preliminary hearings in felony cases. Id. However, there are judges who handle typical superior court cases and those who handle limited jurisdiction civil cases, preliminary hearings, and misdemeanors. Limited civil cases are those civil cases previously heard in municipal court. Criminal cases tried in municipal court are identified as misdemeanor or infraction cases. Id.

In addition, there was controversy over Proposition 220 because it gave the trial court judges in each county the choice as to whether or not to unify that county's municipal courts and superior courts. Id. Generally, the Legislature does not delegate decisions to members of the judicial branch but Proposition 220 allowed judges to decide on the consolidation issue. Id. As of February 8, 2001, all fifty-eight California counties have decided to unify their courts. Statutes Made Obsolete by Trial Court Restructuring: Part 1, at 3.

Still, members of the Voter Information Alliance (VIA) are opposed to Proposition 48. They argue that the removal of the language "municipal courts" within the California Constitution eliminates the possibility of an individual county or the entire state's return to a two-tier trial court system. Ballot Pamphlet at 17. Further, the VIA argues that consolidation of the state's trial courts into a single superior court has created unfairness, made local courts more limited, and created a system less accountable to the people. While the VIA argues against court consolidation, it overlooks that Proposition 48 does not consolidate the state's trial courts. Under 1998's Proposition 220, California voters approved trial court consolidation. Id.

In November 2000, the Administrative Office of the Courts presented the results of a study on the initial impact of trial court consolidation. The study, based on fifty-three consolidated trial courts, focused on the initial changes and successes of consolidation and its remaining challenges. It indicated that courts generally had improved services to the public through reallocation of judicial and staff resources. The efficiency of court operations had improved as courts reorganized administrative operations along functional rather than jurisdictional lines and eliminated the duplication of the former two-tier system of superior and municipal courts. Further, the study identified that some courts had expanded programs, such as drug courts, domestic violence courts, and services to juveniles. Others had expanded hours of service and improved filing and payment procedures. Mary Anne Lahey et al., Analysis of Trial Court Unification in California Final Report (Sept. 28, 2000) (available at ); Judicial Council of California, Trial Court Unification Fact Sheet 1 (July 2002) (available at ).

The 2000 study also indicated that consolidation had also led to improved court calendars and case management practices thereby reducing backlog and improving case disposition time. Because of unification, judges were hearing a wider range of cases. In addition, the development of standardized local rules, policies, and procedures support the countywide structure of court operations. However, limitations in court technology and facilities were increasingly apparent as courts, now larger and more complex organizations, struggled to deliver services on a countywide basis. Id. at 2.

VII. Conclusion

In November, California voters will decide whether to remove obsolete language from the California Constitution reflecting their decision in 1998 to consolidate California's trial courts thereby eliminating municipal courts. Every county has since voluntarily eliminated their municipal courts. This element of trial court restructuring has saved California an estimated twenty-three million dollars a year. Ballot Pamphlet at 17. This savings supports that elimination of municipal courts provides efficient use of judicial resources and eliminates those administrative costs necessary to maintain two separate trial court systems.

Proposition 48 makes changes to simply update the California Constitution to reflect the voice of the people. As long as the Constitution contains provisions referencing municipal courts, there is the possibility of confusion. Moreover, presence of obsolete language needlessly complicates the law. California voters have already voiced their decision to unify the trial courts. Now with unification complete, Proposition 48 is the final step towards increased clarity in the law surrounding trial court consolidation.