Recently, U-T San Diego’s Watchdog feature breathlessly announced that San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Trentacosta had assigned recently elected Judge Gary Kreep to the court’s Traffic Division.
The Watchdog writers sensed, and maybe correctly, that because there had not been a real judge in the Traffic Division for a long time, sending Judge Kreep there must be the court’s version of the woodshed.
It was not always so. While I served on the court, it was the presiding’s wise practice to rotate judges through the traffic, misdemeanor arraignment, trial-setting and felony-arraignment departments.
The primary reason was to make sure that there was a real judge presence in those departments to keep them in synchrony with the rest of the bench and to make sure the commissioners serving in those departments remained under close supervision.
Inefficiencies in the arraignment departments are felt in the trial departments, so it was important to assure good control at the front end of the process.
When new judges were elected, they were inserted into the rotation not only to accomplish the above objectives, but also to give them time to adjust from their advocacy roles to those of adjudicators.
A new judge must also develop “judicial temperament and demeanor” which is, as one commentator said: “A judge should impact a trial as the dew does the morning.”
What better way to develop that moist film than to rotate through the high-volume courts for three to six months while handling hundreds of cases and thousands of litigants?
In addition, the rotation gave new judges insight into the wide scope of court operations.
What they would find while visiting the traffic division is that it handles far and away the most litigants (our fellow citizens) and the most cases, imposes the most orders, deals with the most law-enforcement agencies, and collects the lion’s share of court revenues.
But besides the above management factors, the court is supposed to be a major factor in our system of public safety.
Traffic safety is the biggest piece thereof.
Violations of the Vehicle Code cause more death, personal injury and property damage than do violations of the Penal Code.
Drunken driving itself is the second most numerous misdemeanor crime reported and, unattended to results in needless deaths.
Wouldn’t you guess that the fact that hundreds die on our roads, thousands more are injured, and millions of dollars of property damage occurs each year in San Diego County as a result of Vehicle Code violations that the Superior Court would assign at least one real judge to that department?
A review of the CHP-Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) report that tracks vehicle safety and compares performances among cities and counties shows that San Diego County rates worse than average in every major category of traffic safety indices.
Besides all of that, the Traffic Division will benefit from the presence of a real judge because of problems with the assigned commissioners.
From my own visits, I observe that commissioners vary widely in their work habits and their punishment policies. Some are passive, some are strict. Some show up and take the bench on time and some don’t.
A supervising judge could help improve work habits and legal consistency.
But there is another problem. Not only is a judge an adjudicator of retail cases, he or she is also on the board of directors of the court responsible for its management.
Commissioners are not tasked with observing for or recommending wholesale changes to the courts operations that will benefit the public.
Just one example of hundreds: I was presiding in Misdemeanor Arraignment Department once when my late friend Lief Tessem, himself a practicing lawyer but then terminally ill, was sitting in the front row of the court waiting for a case.
After two hours or so, his one-minute matter was disposed of.
Upon recess we discussed his having to wait so long for so little and it was then he suggested: “Why don’t you let us fax in these arraignments. There is no reason for us to appear in court.”
I took the idea to then Presiding Ronald Domnitz who approved it and the process was implemented.
Since that time 30 years ago, untold hours have been saved by implementing Lief’s suggestion.
The traffic court is decades overdue for automation. It still operates with dumbwaiters and hand searches.
The court should start its automation process there to get the best return for its investment and provide the best service to the motoring public.
No commissioner is in a position to lead that charge or bring about myriad other improvements in judicial policies that could make San Diego the safest county in the state in which to drive.
So thanks, Judge Trentacosta. Having known Judge Kreep for many years, I am sure he will serve the people of San Diego to the best of his ability wherever you place him.
I hope you assign him and other dedicated judges like him to bring about important reforms in the Traffic Department and not convert that important function as a penal colony.
Modernizing that Traffic Department is way, way overdue.
Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.