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Worried that court procedures may have been compromised, Presiding Judge Ronald Quidachay of the San Francisco Superior Court announced Wednesday a more secure, high-tech way to process new complaints. Out with the old-fashioned hand-stamp method; in with a tamper-proof computer-assisted system. “Our new system will avoid the circulation of a numbering stamp among the window clerks and will have case numbers assigned by the computer,” Quidachay said in a written statement. “This change should make it impossible for anyone to anticipate the number that will be assigned to a newly filed complaint.” The PJ’s procedural change comes a week after it was reported that almost all asbestos litigation filed by a San Francisco plaintiffs’ firm during a two-year period was directed to Quidachay when he was one of two law and motion judges. In a law firm survey of 173 asbestos filings by Wartnick, Chaber, Harowitz & Tigerman during the period in question, “nearly all have received even case numbers,” attorney Gregory Meronek, an associate with Carroll, Burdick & McDonough, wrote the court on Jan. 22. An independent review by The Recorder covering 1999 and 2000 showed that of 201 asbestos complaints filed by Wartnick’s office, 189 — 94 percent — got even-numbered stamps. The upshot of the even-numbered assignment was that virtually all Wartnick cases were sent to Quidachay instead of half going to him and half to the other law and motion judge, David Garcia. Meronek says the perception among the asbestos defense bar is that asbestos cases would more likely survive summary judgment motions with Quidachay than with Garcia. “Some would say Judge Quidachay had a more pro-plaintiff style,” the Carroll Burdick associate said. Told of the procedural changes, Meronek said Wednesday that his firm was “encouraged” that Quidachay would look into the matter and propose a remedy for the questionable way case numbers were assigned. “It sounds like a pretty good way to prevent the problem from arising in future,” Meronek said, adding he had not yet seen Quidachay’s written comments. “It also sounds like a positive development and will make it a more secure way” to process complaints, he said. “It’s a good approach to avoid this from happening again.” Calls to name partner Harry Wartnick seeking his reaction to Quidachay’s procedural change were not returned. Wartnick earlier had declined to comment on the allegations by asbestos defense attorneys that his firm somehow rigged the system to get even numbers for his cases. “I’m not going to reduce myself to addressing these accusations in the press,” he said. Initially, defense attorneys thought it was a coincidence that Wartnick cases got stamped with even numbers. But as the pattern persisted, they suspected something more was at play. “Since deputy clerks are supposed to file cases and assign numbers in the sequence that pleadings are presented to them, this pattern obviously cannot be explained by random chance,” Meronek said in his letter to the court. “The implications of this pattern and practice have raised serious concerns.” In his one-page written statement, Quidachay conceded that the allegations swirling around the numbering of cases deserved “a few words of explanation.” “First, judges play absolutely no role in assigning numbers,” he said. “Until the issue was raised recently, neither any other judge, nor I, so far as I know, was aware of any disproportion in the odd- and even-numbered cases from the Wartnick or any other law firm.” Quidachay said, “You can be sure that the last thing a judge sitting in a law and motion department is concerned about” is the numbering of cases that come before the court. The presiding judge then turned his attention to the clerks who process and file the hundreds of cases that cross their counters each year. “I have checked with the personnel in our clerk’s office and at the filing windows and have discovered no reason to believe that any court employee knowingly assigned odd or even numbers to any cases based on the law firm filing the complaint or any other non-random consideration,” Quidachay said. “Nor is there any reason to believe that court personnel knowingly facilitated the efforts of others to obtain odd or even case numbers,” he added. Gordon Park-Li, the court’s chief executive officer, said earlier that one explanation was that persons such as messengers sent by law firms to file complaints would devise a system to achieve even numbering. “One initial response is that the messengers were waiting for — I don’t want to use the word ‘manipulating’ — but were essentially presenting the cases in such a fashion that they would get odd or even numbers,” Park-Li suggested. Quidachay’s statement was ostensibly aimed at the local bar, but it also appeared to assuage the concerns of his fellow jurists. Two judges have said privately that the exposure of a faulty filing system reflects poorly on the court. One judge also said it calls into question the “integrity” of the San Francisco bench. One judge referred to the “California Judicial Conduct Handbook,” published by the California Judges Association, Section 6.26, which tells jurists they’re responsible for a court’s reputation. “As far as the public’s perception of the court, the appearance of unfairness and impropriety is no less grave when created by a member of the staff as opposed to the judge,” wrote David Rothman, former chair of the CJA’s Judicial Ethics Committee. Rothman says judges are also required by Canon 3B(4) to insure that court personnel “under [their] direction and control” must act appropriately and must “refrain from manifesting bias.”

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