The El Dorado County judiciary's penchant for doing things its own way has run afoul of a state appeals court.
The bottom-line question before the higher court was: Can judges ignore a law they don't like and make their own rule?
A resounding "No" was the answer from the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal.
El Dorado Superior Court adopted a local rule mandating that all misdemeanor defendants be present at what is usually the last in-court proceeding before trial. It is called a "readiness and settlement conference," and it is "the last possible point of negotiation," at which a defendant either agrees to a plea deal or defense counsel and the prosecutor announce they are ready for trial.
The judges in El Dorado County decided the absence of the defendant precludes a meaningful conference because no settlement is possible without the acquiescence of the accused. They argue that if a defendant says on the day trial is set to begin that he will accept a plea bargain, valuable resources have been wasted, including a jury pool summoned to the courthouse and trial preparation by the district attorney's office.
The problem is, state statutory and case law says a misdemeanor defendant, with certain exceptions, does not have to attend the conference.
A three-justice appeals panel stated earlier this month in a 21-page published opinion that the county's misdemeanor defendants "are being erroneously required to appear at the readiness and settlement conference pursuant to a blanket court policy, supported by (the local rule). Accordingly, we shall issue a peremptory writ directing the court to reform its practices."
"Such a mechanical policy ignores the necessary exercise of judicial discretion which must precede the deprivation of a misdemeanant's statutory right to be absent and appear through counsel," the panel declared.
It added "the purpose of allowing defendants to appear through counsel is to allow them access to the courts without causing hardship to them. In misdemeanor cases, the possible fine or penalty is often small and the burden of appearance at a distant courthouse can exceed it."
By ordering the opinion published, the justices made it binding precedent on superior courts statewide.
It was written by Acting Presiding Justice Harry E. Hull Jr., with the concurrences of Associate Justices Ronald B. Robie and Andrea Lynn Hoch.
Three defendants represented by the county public defender's office two charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence and the other with disturbing the peace appealed after they were forced in 2010 to attend the conference by El Dorado Superior Court Judge Daniel Proud.
Proud "simply referred to a rule requiring a defendant's appearance, twice invoking the local rules and, in one case, making some comments suggesting it was a state rule," the panel noted.
Because they are misdemeanor cases, the appeal went first from Proud to El Dorado Superior Court Judge Suzanne N. Kingsbury on Dec. 7, 2010.
More than a year later on Dec. 27, 2011 she threw it out, ruling that the issue was moot because all three underlying cases had been resolved.
But the public defender's office persisted in an appeal, seeking an opinion that would benefit future misdemeanor defendants.
When it got to the appellate court, Deputy Attorney General Julie Hokans argued mootness and the error did not invalidate subsequent proceedings, but the panel wouldn't buy it.
The misdemeanor defendants "pursued relief in El Dorado County but were unable to obtain a timely ruling," the justices pointed out.
"Case law recognizes the need to address such issues, particularly in 'matters of broad public interest that are likely to recur.' We agree that this petition presents an issue that is likely to recur while evading review."