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SACRAMENTO � The naming of 50 new judges across the state has been delayed by existing bench vacancies, not politics, the governor’s judicial appointments secretary said Wednesday. Sharon Majors-Lewis said she’s working “feverishly” to give the governor names of qualified judicial applicants to fill the 50 trial court positions the Legislature authorized last year under Senate Bill 56. Money for those judgeships became available June 1, and courts swamped for years by a skyrocketing workload have been waiting eagerly for the new help. But Majors-Lewis said the first priority was filling trial court vacancies statewide caused by resignations and retirements. “The whole purpose of this is to make the courts work efficiently, not just to fill the positions created by SB 56,” Majors-Lewis told The Recorder in an interview Wednesday. The delay in naming the 50 new judges led legislative Democrats to threaten to withhold approval of another 50 judgeships in the 2007-08 budget, which starts July 1. Democrats, especially those in the Assembly, have complained that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s previous judicial picks lacked diversity. Since last year Assembly leaders have made it clear that they would scrutinize the composition of the governor’s first 50 selections before authorizing another 50 positions. Given that, members of a bicameral budget committee expressed surprise last week when a Department of Finance official told them that Schwarzenegger was not likely to start naming the 50 new judges until August � well after the Legislature expects to finish work on the 2007-08 budget. The committee late Wednesday afternoon agreed without debate to approve the second round of 50 judges, although the funding will still have to be authorized by the full Legislature as part of the overall budget. Majors-Lewis said Wednesday that the Department of Finance official’s comment last week about delaying new appointments until August was incorrect. In fact, she said, the first new judges could be named within a week. “Maybe all of the positions will be filled by the end of June,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process. It’s fluid.” But Majors-Lewis cautioned that the entire 50 slots may not be filled until August. The appointment rate depends on how often she is able to confer with the governor, if the governor agrees with her recommendations, whether the applicants actually take the job offer, and how quickly the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation screens the would-be judges, Majors-Lewis said. Of the 50 new judgeships, half will go to fast-growing Riverside, San Bernardino, Sacramento and Fresno counties. Presiding Judge Richard Fields of the Riverside County Superior Court said he hadn’t heard about any delays in naming the seven new judges his county is anxiously awaiting. But he said he’s not overly concerned. “They fully understand our situation,” Fields said. “We feel that they’ve acted in good faith.” Overwhelmed by a crush of pending cases, the Riverside court has delayed some civil proceedings so judges in those divisions can hear criminal complaints. In recent months, Fields said, the governor’s office has moved quickly to fill vacancies in his court, in one case appointing a new judge 18 days after his predecessor retired. “The governor’s office has just been so aware of what our needs are.” A former San Diego County prosecutor, Majors-Lewis was appointed by Schwarzenegger in February to replace longtime judicial appointments secretary John Davies. Although the governor’s administration has known since last summer that it would be appointing 50 new judges, Majors-Lewis said that when she took office she quickly realized that the existing pool of applicants wasn’t adequate to fill the openings in every county. “The mistaken assumption seems to be that everyone who has applied is qualified,” she said. “That’s not true.” Two weeks ago, Schwarzenegger appointed 14 judges in eight counties, including six in Los Angeles, to fill existing vacancies. Majors-Lewis said she didn’t immediately know how many more vacancies there are to fill. In a related issue, Majors-Lewis said she has just finished revising the state’s judicial application. Minority bar groups have complained that the form now in use places too much emphasis on trial work, which discourages the more diverse pool of lawyers outside the criminal prosecution and defense arena from applying. Majors-Lewis said the new application could be online as soon as next week.

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