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The number of retired judges asking for court assignments has shrunk by more than 25 percent this year — an apparent reaction to new rules forcing them to choose between public and private work. By Friday — the deadline for judges to sign up for the assignment program — the Administrative Office of the Courts had received notice that 263 judges were on board. That’s down from 367 last year. The numbers are still preliminary, but already the shrinkage isn’t as bad as predicted by Chief Justice Ronald George. He thought more jurists would opt for private work and had expected only 250 judges to sign up this year. “That actually exceeds our expectations,” George said Friday. The AOC anticipates more letters from judges to trickle in during the next week, further boosting this year’s pool. The new policy prohibits assigned judges from conducting private dispute work for pay. Judges can do both public and private work only if they get appointed to a case and paid by a court — or if they sit on a private dispute involving a not-for-profit and refuse pay. George announced the rules in July in response to complaints of possible conflicts between judges’ private and public assignments. There were even allegations that judges actively used work in public courthouses to promote themselves and seek private arbitration and mediation work. Not everyone read Friday’s numbers with George’s optimism. Retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Hodge said that while the numbers are better than expected, they merely signal an even larger exodus to come. “My prediction is private judging will continue its incursion,” Hodge said. “And that’s by virtue of the marketplace.” Private judges earn anywhere from $1,600 to $13,000 a day. Assignment judges earn $513 a day. Hodge, who retired in 2001, also counts himself among the critics who think George overreacted. “The chief has addressed a very real danger,” said Hodge, who gave up public assignments to devote himself full time to the private sector. “My objection is he handled the problem with a meat cleaver when a scalpel is just fine.” But George said he simply doesn’t have the resources to police the assignment program case by case. “I can’t have hall monitors in the courts,” he said. Hodge said the current state budget crisis also influenced some judges to leave the pool. Because courts will continue to be strapped for cash, judges cannot depend on public work to earn money unless they’re the rare jurist who has a dependable assignment, he said. There’s more than enough work in the private realm to go around, he added. George agreed that the budget could mean fewer available hours. But that also lessens the impact of the dropouts, he said, “because we won’t need as many.” “The bottom line is [the rule change] was not done on the basis of how many judges we were going to lose or gain,” George said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

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