A shortage of judges in Riverside County has led to the dismissal of hundreds of criminal cases, a practice the California Supreme Court upheld on Monday and blamed on the state's budget woes.
In unanimous ruling, the state high court said Riverside County's dearth of judges represented a "chronic" problem that was the fault of the budget-strapped state.
The case before the court involved an accused burglar, one of 18 criminal defendants whose cases were dismissed on the same day after they invoked their rights to speedy trials. Two of the 18 were charged with felonies.
Riverside County Deputy Public Defender William A. Meronek said Monday's ruling also would end prosecution for as many as 300 other defendants whose cases were on appeal after being dismissed for lack of judges. But Riverside County Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Tate said his office would fight to prosecute the most serious of the dismissed cases.
The judiciary has long insisted that California needs more judges, but nowhere has the shortage been more dramatic than in Riverside County.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the court, said in Monday's ruling that "the lack of available courtrooms and judges was attributable to the Legislature's failure to provide a number of judges and courtrooms sufficient to meet the rapidly growing population in Riverside County."
Riverside prosecutors challenged the dismissals, arguing that the court should have made every judge in the courthouse, including those in juvenile, family law and probate, available for the cases.
But the state high court said Riverside County already was giving criminal cases priority over civil disputes, and the court was not required to halt proceedings in civil cases to make room for criminal matters.
An absolute rule giving precedence to all criminal cases could force a court "to abandon entirely its responsibility to provide for the fair administration of civil as well as criminal matters," George wrote.