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Supervising judge oversees growing North County caseload

Along with just about everything else in North County, the caseload at the Vista courthouse is growing at a phenomenal rate.

Felony criminal filings jumped 35 percent from 2000 to 2001. Major civil case filings also have swollen dramatically, increasing by about 23 percent, according to David Yamasaki, administrator for the North County branch of the San Diego County Superior Court.

Accommodating the rapid growth represents the biggest challenge facing Judge Joan Weber, who took up the post of supervising judge in North County about three months ago.

"It's the busiest courthouse in the county these days. Our numbers of filings for civil and criminal cases are increasing at a much more rapid rate than the rest of the county," Weber said in a recent interview.

The number of trials has increased as well, putting pressure on the entire system -- from the available judges and courtrooms, to the number of citizens brought in to serve on juries.

"I think it's been more pronounced in the last couple of years," Weber said. "I think it's just a function of the numbers in North County in general. The population in North County is growing at a more rapid rate than the rest of the county. It really is a booming metropolis. ... So the numbers are reflected in the court system."

Weber, who'd like to dedicate all her time to administrative duties, has been forced to preside over trials to help ease the burden on the other judges and commissioners.

Weber, 46, has been on the bench for 12 years. She grew up in Cincinnati and earned her law degree in 1980 from the University of Arizona at Tucson. After clerking for a federal judge and then working in private practice for a few years, she joined the United State's Attorney's office in San Diego as a prosecutor in 1983.

Seven years later, then Gov. George Deukmejian appointed her to the San Diego Municipal Court. Four years after that, Gov. Pete Wilson elevated her to the Superior Court bench.

Her first eight years as a judge were spent at the downtown San Diego courthouse. She moved to Vista in 1998, where she served as a trial judge for a few years before the presiding judge downtown appointed her to the post she holds now.

Other than the shear volume of the caseload her judges have to handle, work at the Vista branch is progressing smoothly, she said.

Weber and Yamasaki, the court administrator, are overseeing a $5.2 million remodel of the older portion of the courthouse, located at 325 S. Melrose Drive in Vista. Contractors expect to finish the three-phase project in the spring of 2003. At that time, the traffic court in San Marcos will be moved to the Vista location.

They also oversee a $16.6 million annual budget. Weber spends much of her time trying to stretch that money further by making the system a little more efficient.

Her team of 30 judges and commissioners includes five who specialize in civil cases, four in family law, two in juvenile dependency and two in traffic court. The rest sit in trial courts or calendaring departments.

The civil judges have come under particular pressure in the last year or two, Weber said. Several large law firms have opened offices in the Carmel Valley area, and they often file cases in Vista rather than going to the downtown courthouse.

"I really do think that that's had an impact -- that a lot of firms are moving up, or at least putting branch offices up in the North County area," Weber said. "There's a lot of business up here.

"Major civil cases are filed in the Vista courthouse every day," she said. "I think a lot of it has to do with where the parties are located. Where the lawyers are located. Where the discovery is going to be taking place. And let's face it, we have a lot of businesses operating in North County."

Weber serves as supervising judge at the pleasure of the downtown presiding judge, a position elected each year by the Superior Court bench countywide. At this point, she's enjoying her new role, but she hasn't decided yet whether she'll want to stay on after her first year.

"So far it's been a lot of fun. And, frankly, I've been on the bench 12 years. I've handled a lot of high-profile civil and criminal cases. And I've pretty much done every type of assignment," Weber said. "It's a very different job than being just a trial judge. I do feel a tremendous amount of responsibility. But it's an interesting challenge. I'm enjoying it."

For more about the legal community in North County, read tomorrow's edition of North County Economic Development Week. Information on the services that North County law firms provide will be included.

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