Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Court Commissioner Can Summarily Deny Habeas Petition

Article VI, Section 22 of the Constitution authorizes the Legislature to authorize superior courts to appoint commissioners to perform "subordinate judicial duties." Does this extend to summarily denying petitions for habeas corpus filed by state prisoners? The Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District has said "yes," in Gomez v. Superior Court (here). The rationale is that the constitutional provision was intended to give the Legislature power to authorize commissioners to perform the duties they had prior to 1966, when this portion of the constitution was revised, and these duties included summarily denying petitions for habeas corpus. The court also relied on cases holding that mandate proceedings do not result in a "cause" that requires oral argument until an alternative writ or order to show cause issues.

This case may be right on logic, but it's a horrible result. Indeed, even the Attorney General sided with the petitioners on this one. The opinion seems driven more by concern for small counties with few judges but large prisons than the right of a prisoner to have his claims reviewed by a "real" judge. Indeed, the opinion starts out with the observation that "State prison inmates are a litigious bunch when it comes to filing writ petitions challenging conditions of confinement or raising a multitude of other grievances." It's downhill from there. The California Supreme Court should grant review and revisit its prior decision in Rooney v. Vermont Investment Corp., 10 Cal. 3d 351 (1973), the principal basis for the Court of Appeal's holding.