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The California Supreme Court settled a venue fight Thursday that has had trial courts lobbing cases back and forth for years in what one appellate jurist had labeled a “tennis match.” Ruling unanimously, the justices held that habeas corpus writs filed by lifer inmates attacking parole decisions must be handled by the courts in which the prisoners were sentenced, not where they are incarcerated. “Assigning the task of adjudicating habeas corpus petitions that challenge adverse parole determinations to the court in the county of commitment will have the beneficial effect of producing consistent review of such claims by one court,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote, “instead of review by a multitude of courts as the petitioner is relocated from one prison to another.” The ruling means that heavily populated counties, such as Los Angeles and Santa Clara that have few, if any, prisons but sentence lots of criminals, will be getting a much larger share of habeas petitions. For years, lifers’ habeas petitions were being shunted back and forth between the counties of commitment and the counties of incarceration. But then in December 2001, Division Six of Los Angeles’ Second District Court of Appeal declared that the sentencing county had to handle them. That decision ended the “tennis match” case that saw convicted murderer Ruben Sena’s petition shipped from Los Angeles County, where he was sentenced, to San Luis Obispo County, where he was imprisoned, only to see it bounce back to L.A. and then again to San Luis Obispo. In December 2002, however, the Second District’s Division Four ruled exactly the opposite in the case of convicted murderer Orlando Roberts, saying that San Diego County, where he was imprisoned, should have handled his habeas petition. The high court took Roberts’ case, and on Thursday disagreed, saying he should have petitioned L.A. County, where he committed his two murders. The justices, however, upheld the denial of his habeas petition. In the opinion, Chief Justice George pointed out that counties with smaller populations have been unduly burdened by habeas petitions, while the counties that have sentenced the most prisoners have gotten off lightly. As an example, he noted that the 773 felony convictions in 2002-03 in Kings County � home to three state prisons � accounted for substantially less than 1 percent of the 120,011 convictions statewide that year. The 29,881 convictions in L.A. County � home to one prison � stood at 25 percent. During the same fiscal year, Kings County � with a 2000 population of about 130,000 � was hit with 415 habeas petitions, while L.A. County � with more than 9.5 million people � handled only 408. The court also pointed out that Kings County houses 18,384 felony prisoners, for a ratio of one judge for every 2,626 inmates. L.A. County has 4,281 felony prisoners, for a ratio of one judge for every 10 inmates. George said that forcing counties with prisons to handle habeas petitions “has imposed an onerous workload upon the superior courts in sparsely populated counties having far fewer judges and other personnel and resources than are available in more populous counties � a circumstance that likely has motivated such courts in the past to transfer such habeas corpus petitions elsewhere.” The ruling is In re Roberts, 05 C.D.O.S. 6388.

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