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Change is afoot at the San Francisco Superior Court’s civil courthouse. Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens is passing her regular calendar duties to another judge so she can focus on the administrative aspect of the PJ’s job. Beginning March 29, Judge Robert Dondero will take over as supervisor of the civil division and assume its master calendar. And effective immediately, all judges at the civil courthouse will start getting criminal trials to help deal with a backlog at the Hall of Justice. The court’s executive committee settled on those changes at a retreat March 12 and 13 in Tiburon, court officials said Friday. “There are only so many hours in the day,” Hitchens said Friday. She wants to focus on the PJ’s administrative duties, which she says have been increasing in recent years. “There’s more and more, especially with the budget situation,” said court CEO Gordon Park-Li. He noted that Hitchens offered testimony at a meeting in Oakland Thursday, hosted by state Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove, to help build the case for protecting courts from drastic budget cuts this year. In a typical week, Hitchens said, she sends trials out on three calendars on Mondays and presides over motion calendars Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. While Park-Li can’t recall a San Francisco presiding judge who didn’t handle the civil master calendar, he said it’s fairly common for PJs in large jurisdictions to leave regular calendars to other judges and focus on administration. Dondero, the assistant presiding judge, supervised the criminal courts for about a year before arriving in his current civil trial courtroom. Civil courthouse judges have presided over criminal trials from time to time in the past, Park-Li said. And in January, Judge Anne Bouliane’s civil courtroom, Dept. 624, was designated a criminal courtroom, he pointed out. But the volume of criminal cases sent to the Civic Center courthouse is expected to increase. Judges Dondero, Mary Wiss and Jerome Benson will prepare a manual, scripts and training sessions to help judges who haven’t done criminal trials before, or at least not recently, according to an e-mail Hitchens sent to the court’s judges and commissioners. A few judges contacted late last week were supportive of the move to prepare all judges for criminal trials. Judge Richard Kramer, who practiced commercial law for 24 years, said he didn’t know anything about criminal law when he was first assigned to the Hall of Justice. “We get judges that used to be criminal prosecutors that do civil cases,” added Kramer, who’s now in a civil courtroom. “We’re supposed to be able to do everything.” Moving the cases isn’t a perfect solution, Park-Li acknowledged. The civil courthouse has “some logistical issues” that make it less than ideal for criminal trials — such as limited holding cells. Until there are more courtrooms at the Hall of Justice, “we’ll have to make do,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who says his deputies have to find substitutes to appear in criminal courtrooms if they’re also scheduled to be at the civil courthouse near City Hall.

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