How Did It Get So Late So Soon?

“How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?”
–Dr. Seuss

Hon. Steven K. AustinHow did it get so late so soon? I can’t believe that my two-year term as Presiding Judge (PJ) is almost at an end. It seems like yesterday that I was moving across the street to the Bray Annex where the PJ’s chambers is hidden. I remember thinking that two years away from the courtroom was going to be a long time, but that it would afford me an opportunity to help make our court a better place. Well, I was wrong about it being a long time. Hopefully, we’ve been able to improve the court in meaningful ways.

The first year flew by while we were busy expanding programs and services. We could do that because for the first time in many years, the Governor and the Legislature increased our budget. After years of cutbacks, furloughs and long lines, we were able to focus on restoring services to the public. We reinstituted calendars, increased clerk’s office hours, improved our jury services and began the process of modernizing our tech infrastructure. We were even able to create some new programs, like Judge Rebecca Hardie’s Truancy Court, that have already had a profound effect on the lives of people in our community.

The second year has been just as busy, but for other reasons. As our Court Executive Officer, Stephen Nash indicates in a different article, our budget dropped this year. This has meant that our focus has shifted from expanding services to trying to hold onto the services we already have. As you might expect, the year working on expanding was more fun. While being forced to do more with less this year though, it’s been exciting to help come up with innovative and creative ways to still get our job done.

A good example of that has been the successful shift of more resources to our Family and Civil Divisions that resulted in Judge Anita Santos taking her Family Law Department out to Pittsburg and Judge Ed Weil’s new Civil/Probate Department in Martinez. By increasing available courtrooms in these three high volume case types, we have been able to reduce wait times for both Civil and Family hearings. We’ve also provided a dedicated home for long cause Probate trials. Judge Weil and Judge Santos have certainly done a great job in bringing about these improvements.

We have also been able to start a new specialty court to handle mental health cases under “Laura’s Law.” With funding assistance from Contra Costa County, the court hears petitions for assisted outpatient treatment for persons with significant psychiatric disabilities whose problems don’t qualify for more restrictive conservatorship proceedings under the LPS Act. The purpose of the program is to get people who need behavioral health services into treatment so that they can successfully live in the community and stay out of in-patient treatment or the criminal justice system. I hear the calendar one afternoon each week, where I work together with County Counsel, the Public Defender’s Office and the Behavioral Health Department to bring needed services to the participants. We’re only just beginning the program, but dozens of people are already receiving life-changing treatment through this innovative court program.

Another area where we have been able to provide more service to the public has been through our expansion of courtroom interpreter services. Magda Lopez details our efforts in this area in her article. Most people are surprised to learn that the courts traditionally have not provided interpreters to litigants in civil and family cases. But now, with new authority from the Judicial Council and new funding from the Legislature, California courts are starting to provide interpreters in all case types to people who otherwise would be shut out of court because they don’t speak English well. Our court has rapidly expanded these needed services and in the process has become a statewide leader in providing language access services.

When I started my term as Presiding Judge, I had very little experience with our Traffic Court practices and procedures. That certainly changed in a hurry! Between the new Traffic Amnesty Program that Kate Bieker describes in her article and the new national focus on the negative impacts on the poor of rising court-ordered fines and fees, our traffic practices have been a constant concern this year. With input from the public, we have worked hard to redesign our forms and notices to better explain in plain language the process and potential pitfalls. We’ve also updated our procedures to make sure that our Traffic Courts and collection practices are as fair as possible.

As these two years have sped by, not a day has passed where I was not impressed with the dedication, skill, patience and effort of the people who work with us at the court. After 18 years on the bench, I’ve gotten to know just about everybody who works here. One of the best parts of being Presiding Judge has been the opportunity to work and visit with each of them at all of our court locations.

I’ve also enjoyed working with the Contra Costa County Bar Association and the countless attorneys who have volunteered to help our court in so many ways. I know from talking with Presiding Judges in other courts that our strong ties between the bench and the bar are unique. Thank you all for everything you have done for our court during my time as Presiding Judge.

And good luck to Judge Fannin when we switch places next year. She is a great judge and a wonderful person who I’m sure will do an amazing job as Presiding Judge.

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