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A state appeal court ruled Tuesday that a San Mateo County judge overstepped her authority earlier this year when she assigned a specific social worker to handle a high-profile dependency case. The court said the judge’s action violated the separation-of-powers doctrine. “The determination of how best to assign duties to employees and otherwise allocate the [human services] agency’s resources is not a judicial function,” First District Court of Appeal Justice Barbara Jones wrote, “and must be left to the agency’s own discretion.” The ruling stems from a running dispute between the San Mateo County Human Services Agency and Juvenile Court Judge Marta Diaz, who harshly criticized the agency’s handling of a dependency case that resulted in the Dec. 26 death of 8-month-old Angelo Marinda. The boy — whose father Ronnie has been charged with murder and assault — died of shaken baby syndrome while on an unsupervised holiday visit with his parents. Diaz had taken the unusual step of personally assigning social worker Barbara Byrne — who had been involved in the case since shortly after Angelo’s death — to continue overseeing reunification efforts between the boy’s mom, Lady Rajan Diesta, and Angelo’s 2-year-old sister Ashley M. County officials objected, saying that the judge had no authority to micromanage the department, even though court records state that Diaz had assigned particular social workers to cases in the past. Tellingly, agency officials had recommended that reunification between the mother and daughter be denied — a decision with which Byrne and Diaz openly disagreed. In the ruling, Jones wrote that Diaz’s action “invaded” the agency’s executive functions, even though it is “an impartial arm” of the court. “We have no doubt that the social services agency is subject to some supervision by the juvenile court,” Jones wrote. “We also have no doubt that the juvenile court believed its ‘unusual’ order was necessary to assure that the court received accurate information and that its orders were being carried out by SMHSA. “However,” she continued, “we conclude that the decision to assign specific duties to a particular social worker is not a decision that falls within the realm of the juvenile court’s powers.” Justices Lawrence Stevens and Mark Simons concurred. Michael Murphy, the chief deputy San Mateo County counsel who argued the case last month, cheered the victory. “We’re pleased with the decision,” he said, “and we felt that we just needed to ensure that there was a line established in terms of the separation between the authority in the courts and the department with regard to assignment of individual social workers. We think the opinion has done that.” Corte Madera solo practitioner Janet Sherwood, who argued the mother’s interests, said she felt the court missed the point: Byrne was an agent of the court, she said, not of the social services agency. She also said the ruling could hurt reunification efforts for many families. “In my mind,” Sherwood said, “it makes it possible for the agency to undermine a family by who they assign, and gives the judge no authority to stop that from happening.” Sausalito solo Janet Saalfield, who represents the father’s interests, said she believes the ruling undercuts judges’ authority in dependency matters. “They need to have that level of control,” she said, “that if they feel that the department has not been doing its job properly, they have the authority to order a specific social worker to handle the matter.” Sherwood had said last month that the county was “drawing a line in the sand” in a jurisdictional battle because of anger at Diaz’s criticism early this year. Saalfield agreed Tuesday, saying the county’s reaction “raises the question about the motivation.” Both Sherwood and Saalfield said an appeal to the California Supreme Court is likely. The case is In re Ashley M., 03 C.D.O.S. 10529.

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