By Mark Gutglueck
(June 25) Marsha Slough, the Presiding Judge of the San Bernardino Superior Court, is being considered by Governor Jerry Brown for appointment to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, the Sentinel has learned.
Slough, a Democrat, submitted an application for the appointment.
Brown, a Democrat, after a cursory examination of her application found Slough’s potential candidacy for an appellate court judgeship viable and has passed her application along to the Judicial Nomination Evaluation Committee.
That committee has until July 2 to make its evaluation of Slough, and will in turn make a recommendation as to whether she merits appointment by the governor.
Though the governor’s judicial appointments to the state’s Superior Courts are made without public hearing, hearings are held for potential appointments to the appellate court.
Slough received an undergraduate degree in liberal studies from Ottawa University in Kansas, where she attended on a basketball scholarship. She obtained her Juris Doctor from Whittier Law School.
Early in her career she practiced primarily in the arenas of automobile insurance and product liability defense. She formed a partnership with Jeffrey Raynes. She subsequently was an associate with the firm Welebir & McCune where she represented personal injury and medical malpractice plaintiffs.
She was appointed to the bench by Governor Gray Davis in August 2003 to fill the vacancy created by the elevation of Judge Jeffrey King to the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Division Two. A member of the American Board of Trial Advocates since 1998, she readily transitioned to the posture of a neutral trier of facts and law.
After seven years as a judge, she stepped into the position of assistant presiding judge in 2010.
Slough ran for re-election to the Superior Court in 2012. As an unopposed incumbent, her name did not appear on the ballot. After the primary election, Slough was automatically re-elected.
Also in 2012, on September 1 of that year, she assumed the office of the presiding judge of the Superior Court of San Bernardino County.
In 2013, Slough was appointed chair of the Judicial Council’s Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee.
It would be Slough’s particular misfortune that in her slightly less than three years as presiding judge, and the two previous years when she was assistant presiding judge, the court system in general, and in San Bernardino especially, has been faced with extraordinary financial challenges. And though the local bar has expressed overwhelming disapproval at the way in which she met those challenges, she has grounds to believe Brown may reward her with elevation to the appellate court precisely because of the near-draconian remedies she applied to the court system to overcome those challenges. In 2008-09, the court system in San Bernardino County had a budget of $110 million, with most of that funding coming directly from the state, such that the county courts spent $1.1 out of its reserves that fiscal year. In 2009-10, the state began cutting the amount of money the county court system had to work with, resulting in a $99.2 million budget, with $6.3 million of that coming from the system’s reserves. In 2010-11, the court system in San Bernardino County saw a respite in the funding reductions, based upon the state providing an infusion of funds consisting of one-time transfers of funds from other state accounts that pushed the San Bernardino County court system budget back up to $108 million, with $1.8 million coming from reserves. But that did not last. The following year, 2011-12, the state was again reducing funding to the courts, with the budget being reduced to $103 million, requiring the expenditure of $4.7 million from the county system’s reserves. In 2012-13, the money supplied by the state to the county court system dropped precipitously to $84 million. The county system dug into its reserves that year to come up with $15.4 million.
At that point, new legislation went into effect that called upon all court systems to maintain a reserve of no more than one percent of their annual budgets.
In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the court system for San Bernardino County functioned on a budget of $98 million. In 2014-15, which is to end next week, the court system for San Bernardino County’s budget was $98 million again.
Through all of this, Slough’s predecessor, Judge Ronald M. Christianson, and then Slough, as well as the court’s chief executive officers, Stephen H. Nash and Christina Volkers, responded by contracting and consolidating the system. This represented an extraordinary hardship on San Bernardino County’s citizens and lawyers. At 20,105 square miles, San Bernardino County is the largest county in the lower 48 states, with a land mass greater than the states of Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.
A first, second and then third wave of closures of the far-flung county’s courthouses were instituted, entailing the shuttering of the Needles courthouse at the county’s northeast end, the closure of the Chino courthouse at the county’s southwest end, the closure of courthouses in the San Bernardino Mountain communities and the removal of civil cases from the Victorville and Joshua Tree courthouses and the closure of the county’s northernmost courthouse, the one in Barstow. Under pressure, Slough consented to reopening the Barstow courthouse three days a week for traffic cases.
But the decimation of the court system up to that point was hardly half of it. The coup-de-grace came when Slough instituted her court realignment in 2014. Under the terms of that realignment, all civil cases countywide were transferred to the newly-constructed San Bernardino Justice Center, an eleven story edifice with 40 courtrooms in downtown San Bernardino. In addition, San Bernardino district criminal cases, which had formerly been heard in the San Bernardino Central Courthouse built in 1927, were routed to the new San Bernardino Justice Center.
West Valley Superior Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga, which had been a venue for both civil and criminal cases originating on the west end of the county, was devoted primarily to criminal cases, including those arising on the county’s west end and other felony and misdemeanor cases from the county’s central district which had been heard at the Fontana Courthouse. A small portion of the criminal cases formerly heard in Fontana were also re-venued to San Bernardino. Rancho Cucamonga’s West Valley Courthouse also became the forum for hearings on both civil and domestic violence restraining orders. The historic San Bernardino Courthouse was kept in service as the forum for the family law cases it had traditionally hosted along with the family law cases previously heard in Rancho Cucamonga.
The Fontana Courthouse became the stage for all small claims, landlord tenant disputes and traffic/non-traffic infractions from the San Bernardino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga districts.
Even before the realignment went into effect, a large and significant segment of the legal community assailed it, and leveled withering criticism at Slough for having conceived it. Those critics included Dennis Stout, who was formerly the county district attorney and mayor of Rancho Cucamonga; Gus Skropos, a former judge and former mayor of Ontario; William Pitt Hyde, who was the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association president in 1960-61 and later a Superior Court judge; Don Maroney, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1964-65 and Upland’s city attorney for more than two decades; Kenneth Ziebarth, who was the mayor of Montclair, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1968-69 and later a Superior Court judge; Bruce Lance, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1971-72; Sidney Jones, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1972-73; Bob Dougherty, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1974-75 and later the city attorney in Rancho Cucamonga; Barry Brandt, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1977-78; Ken Glube, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1978-79; Tracy L. Tibbals, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1985-86; Joseph E. Johnston, a former Superior Court judge; Ben Kayashima, who was presiding judge in 1990 and 1991; Richard Anderson, who has been practicing law since 1968 and was formerly Upland mayor; as well as James Banks and David Ricks, a past president and the current president-elect of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association, respectively. They assailed the realignment as an ill-conceived move that would produce only marginal cost savings for the court system itself while transferring the financial burden to the county’s residents and other public agencies, together with simultaneously legally disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of the county’s residents.
Numerous problems with the realignment were cited, including:
• The sheer distance large numbers of county residents need to travel to have their cases heard;
• The disadvantage that poorer defendants and litigants suffer vis-a-vis contesting charges against them or responding to or pressing forward with lawsuits filed by or against well-heeled adversaries;
• The concentration of criminal defendants into Rancho Cucamonga’s downtown district;
• The lack of adequate parking in downtown San Bernardino to accommodate the influx of litigants, lawyers, witnesses and jurors; and
• The perception that transferring all of the county’s civil cases to San Bernardino was being done not to conserve finances or improve the provision of justice but to assist with the urban renewal of San Bernardino, which as the county seat and the largest of the county’s 24 cities, suffered the ignominy of having filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Close to fourteen months after the realignment went into effect, and with Slough’s candidacy for elevation to the appellate court now being contemplated in Sacramento, it is all but certain that at least some, if not a wide cross section of San Bernardino County’s legal luminaries will turn out at the hearing for her nomination to register protests at her contemplated appointment.
Despite whatever opposition to her placement on the appeals court manifests, Slough has a powerful card to play: She has lived within the financial parameters imposed on her by Sacramento and has faithfully executed the governor’s operational plan, which involved the reductions on the courts, which are state, not county, institutions.
According to California’s Judicial Needs Assessment, San Bernardino County should have 156 judges. At the same time, the state has authorized 91 judges to serve on the courts located in San Bernardino County but has provided funding for only 86.
“We have more than fifty percent fewer employees – judges and staff – than we need,” Slough said. “This is a horrific situation. It is remarkable, to be honest with you, that we are still functioning and meeting our statutory requirements. With the budget cuts we have made layoffs to our staff. When the employees you had go away, that workload stacks on top of the employees that remain. Our courts are still running and I cannot say enough about how much our staff does, year after year, by the month, the week, every day, every hour.”
Referring to court staff as those serving “on the front line,” Slough said they were carrying out their duty despite having been undercut by budgetary decisions made in Sacramento.
“For every dollar that comes out of the state general fund, the courts get 1.2 cents,” she said.
In Slough’s mind, at least, she has been a good soldier, and she deserves a promotion to general officer rank.
By Mark Gutglueck