Taxpayer suit against San Francisco Courts for criminal trial delays to go forward

Raju v. Superior Court of City and County of San Francisco (Cal. Ct. App., June 8, 2023, No. A164736) 2023 WL 3883099, at *1–10

Summary: Manohar Raju and other plaintiffs appealed a judgment dismissing their taxpayer action against the Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco (defendant court), Plaintiffs brought a taxpayer-standing cause of action for declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy alleged violations of Penal Code provisions that impose a duty on the courts to expedite criminal proceedings, by prioritizing them over civil cases, and to follow specific procedural steps before a criminal trial may be continued beyond statutory time limits.

The trial court sustained the demurrer pursuant to Ford v. Superior Court (1986) 188 Cal.App.3d 737 (Ford), which held that one department of a superior court may not restrain the implementation of a judgment entered by another department in a prior action. The Court of Appeal found that Ford is not relevant to the taxpayer cause of action and reversed the judgment.

Factual and Procedural History

The complaint, filed in September 2021, alleged that “San Francisco’s criminal legal system is in a state of crisis,” as over 400 criminal defendants had cases pending past their statutory deadline for trial. Of the defendants, 178 were in jail, typically locked in cells for 23 hours a day; most had been there for months and some, for over a year.

Pre-pandemic, defendant court held most criminal jury trials in 12 departments in its Hall of Justice. The 37 departments in its Civic Center courthouse (Civic Center) were devoted almost wholly to noncriminal cases. In March 2020, COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders led defendant court to shut down and continue all jury trials by 90 days.

When trials resumed in June 2020, at least 11 courtrooms in the Hall of Justice were large enough for socially distanced jury trials, but only reopened four courtrooms for felony trials. Shortages of staff, not COVID safety measures, prevented the reopening of more courtrooms for criminal trials.

By July 2020, 135 criminal cases were pending past their original statutory trial deadline.

Between June 29 and August 30, 2021, defendant court sent out two in-custody cases for trial, while the backlog of in-custody cases grew by 31, to 156 cases. The total backlog rose to 388. Numerous courtrooms were empty and unused, with their doors locked and no indication that any proceedings were being held.

Plaintiffs allege that these failures violate duties imposed upon defendants by Penal Code section 1050, subdivision (a), specifically: to expedite criminal cases “to the greatest degree that is consistent with the ends of justice” (ibid.); and to give criminal trials “precedence over … any civil matters or proceedings” (ibid.), including by organizing its civil and criminal departments and workload so as not to “shortchange the court’s criminal caseload” (People v. Engram (2010) 50 Cal.4th 1131, 1156 (Engram)).

In addition, defendant court allegedly facilitated routine violations of procedural statutes (§§ 1049.5, 1050, subds. (b), (i)) enacted to promote the timely disposition of criminal cases. These statutes permit the continuance of felony trials beyond the statutory trial deadline only upon an evidentiary showing of the necessity of a continuance, and only for the period proven necessary.

Plaintiffs’ taxpayer cause of action, based upon both Code of Civil Procedure section 526a and the common law doctrine of taxpayer standing identified in Silver v. Los Angeles (1961) 57 Cal.2d 39 (Silver), alleges defendants are “illegally expending, wasting and injuring public funds by performing their duties in violation of … sections 686(1), 1049.5 and 1050 [and the speedy trial clauses of the state and federal constitutions].”

Plaintiffs demand a permanent injunction requiring all defendants to, inter alia, give criminal trials priority over non-specialized civil matters, to set them without regard to the pendency of such civil matters, to make all non-specialized civil courtrooms in Civic Center available for criminal trials, and to implement a plan to remediate the backlog.They also seek a declaration that defendants’ conduct violates the cited statutes and constitutional provisions, which “require [defendants] to act as set forth above.” Plaintiffs, however, “do not challenge or seek to remedy any order in any particular criminal case. Nor do they seek dismissal of any case.”

Defendants demurred, contending, among other things, that plaintiffs lack taxpayer standing because they are not criminal defendants, who can assert their own speedy trial rights in their own cases.

The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. Citing precedents holding that one superior court cannot direct a writ of mandamus to another such court (or itself), the trial court ruled that plaintiffs could seek mandamus relief only in the court of appeal. Then, it extended those same precedents to the remaining claims, reasoning that they “do not merely apply in the context of a petition for writ of mandate … but hold that as a general matter, one superior court lacks the power to compel or restrain the actions of another superior court.” On that basis alone, the court concluded that its “lack of authority to issue any relief directed at another superior court judge is fatal to all of [plaintiffs’] claims, and cannot be remedied by any amendment.” (Italics added.) The court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend and, after entry of judgment, plaintiffs timely appealed.

Ford Does Not Bar Plaintiffs’ Cause of Action

Defendants contend the trial court correctly relied upon Ford, supra, 188 Cal.App.3d 737, to sustain their demurrer to the taxpayer cause of action.1They concede, contrary to the trial court’s apparent reasoning, that Ford does not hold that a superior court judge can never “issue any relief directed at another superior court judge” or “lacks the power to compel or restrain the actions of another superior court.” Nonetheless, they assert that, read more narrowly, Ford still bars plaintiffs’ taxpayer-standing claim.  However, Plaintiffs have neither the desire nor the ability to intervene in the underlying criminal proceedings and have disavowed any intent to modify any order or judgment entered in a criminal case. The sought-after relief does not threaten to upset individual, fact-specific, discretionary decisions on speedy trial motions (to continue a trial beyond its statutory “last day” or to dismiss a case for failure show good cause for such continuance) in individual criminal cases, or to alter the well-established procedural and substantive rules governing such motions. Neither the rule nor the underlying rationales of Ford apply to bar plaintiffs’ taxpayer cause of action.

Defendants’ Alternative Arguments

  1. Taxpayer Standing Claims Against Courts and Judges

Defendants argued  that there is no authority specifically providing for the assertion of statutory taxpayer claims against a court or judge. However, they have not pointed to any policy of Code of Civil Procedure section 526a, or precedent construing it, that would warrant a judicially created exception to the well-established rule, simply because the case involves allegations of unlawful activity by a court or judicial officer.

  1. The Courts’ Duties to Ensure Speedy Criminal Trials
  2. Constitutional and Statutory Provisions

The federal and state Constitutions guarantee a criminal defendant a speedy trial. (U.S. Const., amend. 6; Cal. Const., art. I, § 15.) California law implements and protects that right through, inter alia, sections 686, subdivision (1) (restating the right) and 1382 (requiring dismissal, absent good cause, of felony cases not tried within 60 days of arraignment, and of misdemeanor cases not tried within 30 or 45 days of arraignment or plea, depending on custody status). When a defendant moves to dismiss pursuant to section 1382, the court must determine whether the People have demonstrated “good cause” for a continuance of trial beyond the statutory last day. (Engram, supra, 50 Cal.4th at pp. 1162–1163.) The court must consider all relevant circumstances of the particular case, including the nature and strength of the justification for delay, the duration of the delay, and the prejudice to defendant or the People that is likely to result from the delay. (Ibid.)

Engram and the Duty of a Court Under Section 1050(a)

The Engram court rejected the district attorney’s argument that the lack of an available courtroom constituted good cause under section 1382 to delay the trial.  While the Riverside court’s organizational and workload policies had not violated section 1050(a), the inability to commence trial was nonetheless attributable to the state’s failure to supply sufficient judges and courtrooms to timely try criminal cases. While this “might constitute good cause to justify the delay of trial under section 1382 in ‘exceptional circumstances,’ ” (which it described as “unique, nonrecurring events” that produce “an inordinate number of cases”), the Supreme Court concluded that “delay arising out of chronic congestion of a court’s trial docket cannot be excused.”

The Complaint Sufficiently Alleges a Common Law Taxpayer Claim

Plaintiffs allege that defendants maintained a disproportionately large number of civil departments in the face of a mounting backlog of criminal trials and failed to devote sufficient resources to staff and operate the small fraction of departments they did devote to criminal trials, causing a significant number of criminal cases to be continued months past their statutory “last date” for trial. They have pleaded a prima facie case that defendants shortchanged the court’s criminal caseload in violation of “a duty specifically enjoined” on them by section 1050(a).

Findings of Court of Appeal

  • Plaintiffs Pleaded “Waste” or “Illegal Expenditure” of Public Funds
  • Plaintiffs Do Not Impermissibly Challenge a Discretionary Act
  • Plaintiffs’ Taxpayer Claim Is Distinct from Individual Defendants’ Motions under Sections 1049.5 and 1382

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