In late October, ACBA CEO Tiela Chalmers caught up with incoming Presiding Judge Morris Jacobson over lunch. This article was originally published in the 2015 edition of the ACBA’s A Year in Review magazine.
The Court has a lot of big changes planned for the years ahead – can you outline them briefly for us?
Sure. The overview is: Family Law is consolidating in Hayward, Criminal Law matters are being divided into felony courthouses (Dublin and Rene C. Davidson) and misdemeanor courthouses (Wiley Manuel and Fremont), probate and unlawful detainers and stand-alone domestic violence restraining orders are being consolidated into a General Civil court with five judges in Hayward – and many other shifts, as well. (See graphic at the end of the article.)
What was the impetus for these changes?
As I’m sure you know, the Court has been facing a series of budget cuts. Over the course of the last few years, we have faced almost a 30% budget cut. As the State moves over to a new way of calculating Court funding, based on the number of cases filed in each County, Alameda is considered a “donor” court, as we have seen a decline in most types of cases, while other counties have seen a dramatic increase as their populations have increased. Cuts of that magnitude cannot be accommodated with mere belt tightening—we really have to re-envision our Court. We have had to move away from “this is how we always do it.” There were other considerations as well, in particular, the building of the new Dublin courthouse.
Can you explain how that courthouse project impacts the larger plan?
We are delighted to be able to launch a new courthouse in Dublin, scheduled to open its doors in the spring of 2017. That courthouse, located immediately across the street from Santa Rita jail, will enable us to handle criminal matters with in-custody defendants far more efficiently. At the moment, we have to wait for the County to bus the in-custody defendants to hearings all over the County, and if a bus breaks down, or there is lots of traffic, we essentially come a screeching halt waiting for the defendants to arrive.
Once we shift, however, from having 3 courtrooms in Dublin/Pleasanton, to having 13 courtrooms, the dominos start to fall. So that presents both the challenge and the opportunity, to begin to change how we do things, and find other greater efficiencies and cost savings.
What pieces of the puzzle are remaining the same?
Well, there are three things we have no control over: the number of cases that get filed (which affects our budget), the location of our current courthouses, and the geography of our County. So we have to work within those limits.
What do you think the biggest challenges facing the Court will be in the next two years?
Well, certainly the operational details of all of the transitions will be challenging. I am confident that we can readily work our way through those issues, but the devil is, as they say, in the details.
In addition, our transition to a paperless court will present challenges. The judges, court staff and attorneys are all used to paper files (particularly in criminal and family law), and it will take some adjustment on everyone’s part.
The biggest challenge, however, is that there are more budget cuts on the way for us. The State has been phasing in the “WAFM” funding formula (with funding based upon case load), and we have two more years until it is fully implemented. The 2016-2017 fiscal year promises to bring further cuts, and we are going to have to think very carefully about how to deal with those. While the transitions and move to a paperless system will save us money in years to come, it will take some time for those savings to unfold.
With all the challenges you’re facing on the job, how do you relax?
I enjoy cooking, exercising, spending time with my family, and cheering on local sports teams. My son plays in the minor leagues, and he has gotten the whole family involved in baseball. It’s been very exciting. My daughter and I are very fond of superhero movies – we’ll go several times! In addition, we’re adopting a new puppy. I have a feeling that may take some time….
What books do you like to read?
I’m a fan of a good detective story: one that is well-written and also really draws you in. At the moment, I’m reading the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child.