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Gomez v. Superior Court of Lassen County

November 20, 2009

ALFREDO GOMEZ, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LASSEN COUNTY, LASSEN COUNTY RESPONDENT;
TOM FELKER, AS WARDEN, ETC. ET. AL., REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST.
MANUEL JUAREZ, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LASSEN COUNTY, LASSEN COUNTY RESPONDENT;
THE PEOPLE, REAL PARTY IN INTEREST.



(Super. Ct. No. 47543 & CHW2530). ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS. Petitions denied.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scotland , P. J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

State prison inmates are a litigious bunch when it comes to filing writ petitions challenging conditions of confinement or raising a multitude of other grievances. The plethora of paperwork has a disproportionate impact on trial courts in counties where state prisons are located--many of which are small county courts. For example, there are two separate prison facilities housing approximately 11,000 inmates in Lassen County, which has only two trial court judges.

To timely address the many writ petitions filed there, the Lassen County Superior Court has been using a court commissioner to rule on ex parte applications filed by prison inmates seeking the issuance of writs of habeas corpus or writs of mandate or prohibition. It believes that doing so is authorized by Code of Civil Procedure section 259.

After their writ petitions were summarily denied by the commissioner, two prison inmates, Alfredo Gomez and Manuel Juarez, filed petitions in this court challenging the Lassen County trial court procedure, contending it violates California Constitution, Article VI, sections 21 and 22. We issued alternative writs to address the constitutional challenge only. (People v. Miranda (1987) 44 Cal.3d 57, 119, fn. 37.)

The judicial power of the state is vested in the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, and superior courts. (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 1; McHugh v. Santa Monica Rent Control Bd. (1989) 49 Cal.3d 348, 355.) The California Constitution authorizes the Governor to appoint superior court judges when there are vacancies but provides that, upon completion of their terms, superior court judges must sit for nonpartisan election. (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 16, & art. II, § 6.) Thus, as a general rule, only a duly elected or appointed judge can exercise the judicial power of a trial court. The California Constitution provides for two pertinent exceptions. Article VI, section 21 states: "On stipulation of the parties litigant the court may order a cause to be tried by a temporary judge who is a member of the State Bar, sworn and empowered to act until final determination of the cause." Article VI, section 22 states: "The Legislature may provide for the appointment by trial courts of record of officers such as commissioners to perform subordinate judicial duties." The Legislature did so in Code of Civil Procedure section 259.

As we will explain, the summary denial of a prison inmate‟s ex parte application for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus or a writ of mandate is a subordinate judicial duty that a commissioner may perform pursuant to section 259, subdivision (a) of the Code of Civil Procedure, without violating the Constitution, because it is not the "trial" of a "cause." However, if the court commissioner determines that the inmate‟s petition has stated a prima facie case for writ relief, and therefore issues an alternative writ or order to show cause why relief should not be granted, then a cause is created and the commissioner may not try the cause without a stipulation from the parties.

Because the commissioner of the Lassen County Superior Court had authority to summarily deny the relief requested by Gomez and Juarez, we shall deny the writ petitions they filed in this court challenging the commissioner‟s "jurisdiction" to do so.

DISCUSSION

I.

Gomez, an inmate at High Desert State Prison, filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Lassen County Superior Court, claiming that, due to prison officials‟ misapplication of procedural rules and improper application of illegal underground regulations, Gomez was prevented from pursuing an administrative grievance regarding a prison "mailroom and accounting office policy." The superior court commissioner summarily denied the petition. Gomez then objected that the commissioner lacked authority to do so because Gomez "did not consent to the Commissioner‟s jurisdiction." Relying on Code of Civil Procedure section 259, subdivision (a), the commissioner ruled his summary determination on a petition for writ of mandate cannot be challenged on that ground.

Inmate Juarez filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Lassen County Superior Court, claiming officials at High Desert State Prison failed to process three of his administrative appeals regarding conduct of prison staff. The superior court commissioner treated it as a petition for writ of habeas corpus and summarily denied it for failure to state a prima facie case for relief. (People v. Duvall (1995) 9 Cal.4th 464, 475).

Both Gomez and Juarez then filed writ petitions in this court,*fn1 challenging the authority of the commissioner to summarily deny the writ petitions they had filed in the superior court. They argue the commissioner could not rule on their petitions because they had not stipulated that he could act as a temporary judge.

We consolidated the two matters and issued alternative writs of mandate in order to decide whether the commissioner had the authority to summarily deny the inmates‟ requests for relief in the Lassen County Superior Court.

On behalf of the People, the Attorney General‟s Office agrees with Juarez and Gomez that a commissioner cannot rule on a petition for writ of habeas corpus unless the petitioner consents to the commissioner acting as a temporary judge in the matter. (Citing Cal. Const., art. VI, §§ 21 & 22.) In their view, although the Constitution authorizes a court commissioner to perform subordinate judicial duties (Cal. Const., art VI, § 22), the denial of a habeas corpus petition cannot be considered a subordinate judicial duty because of the important liberty interests protected by the "Great Writ." Asserting that the summary denial of a petition for writ of habeas corpus is the equivalent of a final judgment, they argue that commissioners should not be permitted to enter such judgments where fundamental rights are at stake. They fail to address a commissioner‟s authority to summarily deny a petition for writ of mandate.

Respondent Lassen County Superior Court disagrees, contending that, together, article VI, section 22, of California‟s Constitution and section 259 of the Code of Civil Procedure authorize a court commissioner to rule on ex parte applications for writs of habeas corpus, mandate, or prohibition. The constitutional provision allows the Legislature to enact laws permitting trial courts to appoint commissioners to "perform subordinate judicial duties."

As pertinent to this case, the statute says that, "[s]ubject to the supervision of the court," a court commissioner "shall have power" to "[h]ear and determine ex parte motions for orders and alternative writs and writs of habeas corpus in the superior court for which the court commissioner is appointed." (Code Civ. Proc., § 259, subd. (a).) In the superior court‟s view, the Constitution‟s use of the words "subordinate judicial duties" was purposefully broad so the duties of a commissioner might be expanded to help reduce a court‟s workload and relieve an overburdened judicial system.

The court observes that Lassen County has two state prisons, with approximately 11,000 inmates, and is "inundated" with writ petitions filed by prison inmates. Acknowledging that "habeas corpus can be used to challenge the constitutionality of incarceration and other civil rights violations," the court claims that the issues raised in the inmate‟s petitions "are rarely so complex," as demonstrated by Juarez‟s writ petition seeking in part to recover an art folder book confiscated by prison officers. In sum, the court contends that summary denial of an ex parte writ is the type of subordinate judicial duty a commissioner should perform. If dissatisfied with the commissioner‟s decision, the petitioner is not without recourse; he or she can file a new writ petition in the appellate court.

For reasons that follow, our review of applicable law discloses that the position of the Lassen County Superior Court is correct.

II.

As previously noted, article VI, section 21, of California‟s Constitution states: "On stipulation of the parties litigant the court may order a cause to be tried by a temporary judge who is a member of the State Bar, sworn and empowered to act until final determination of the cause." Because the authority of a court commissioner, or any other temporary judge, to try a cause derives from the parties‟ stipulation, a judgment entered by a commissioner in the absence of a proper stipulation is void. (In re Horton (1991) 54 Cal.3d 82, 89-90.) Although a stipulation can be implied when a party appears and permits a cause to be tried before a commissioner without objection (id. at p. 91), Gomez and Juarez say a ...


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