The California Constitution provides for superior and municipal courts, referred to as the state's "trial courts." Currently, the state and the counties pay for the operation of the trial courts. Recent changes in law require that the state pay for all future increases in operating costs, beginning on July 1, 1997.
Superior courts generally handle cases involving felonies, family law (for example, divorce cases), juvenile law, civil lawsuits involving more than $25,000, and appeals from municipal court decisions. Each of the state's counties has a superior court. Currently, there are 805 superior court judgeships.
Municipal courts generally handle misdemeanors and infractions and most civil lawsuits involving disputes of $25,000 or less. Counties are divided into municipal court districts based on population. Currently, there are 675 municipal court judgeships.
Current law requires trial courts to improve their operations in a variety of ways. For example, judges of either court may hear both superior and municipal court cases and staff can be shared between the superior and municipal courts within a county.
Trial Court Consolidation. This proposition, a constitutional amendment, permits superior and municipal courts within a county to consolidate their operations if approved by a majority of the superior court judges and a majority of municipal court judges in the county. If the judges approve consolidation of the courts, the municipal courts of the county would be abolished and all municipal court judges and employees would become superior court judges and employees.
A consolidated superior court would have jurisdiction in all matters that currently fall under the jurisdiction of either the superior or municipal courts. A consolidated superior court would have an appellate division to handle misdemeanors and infractions and most civil lawsuits involving disputes of $25,000 or less that are currently appealed from a municipal court to a superior court. The Legislature can change these amounts thereby changing the appeal jurisdiction.
Other Changes. The proposition makes a number of other related and conforming changes to the Constitution with respect to the minimum qualifications and election of judges in consolidated courts. In addition, the measure makes: (1) related and conforming changes to the membership of the Commission on Judicial Performance, which handles complaints against judges; and (2) related, conforming, and other minor changes to the membership and terms of the California Judicial Council, which oversees and administers the state's courts.
The fiscal impact of this measure on the state is unknown and would ultimately depend on the number of superior and municipal courts that choose to consolidate. To the extent that most courts choose to consolidate, however, this measure would likely result in net savings to the state ranging in the millions to the tens of millions of dollars annually in the long term. The state could save money from greater efficiency and flexibility in the assignment of trial court judges, reductions in the need to create new judgeships in the future to handle increasing workload, improved management of court records, and reductions in general court administrative costs. At the same time, however, courts that choose to consolidate would result in additional state costs from increasing the salaries and benefits of municipal court judges and employees to the levels of superior court judges and employees. These additional costs would partially offset the savings.
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