May 17, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
In today’s column, I want to share with you some of the experiences I’ve had when sitting as a pro tem judge in traffic court, here in Kern County over the past several years.
If you’ve been given a traffic ticket, I’ll give you a point or two on how-potentially-to resolve it without trial in ways better than you could ever imagine. And, if you happen to work for the courts or are a traffic officer, then I think you’ll approve the way I describe what happens in court when the bailiff announces, “Court is in Session.”
What is a pro tem judge?
First off, the term “pro tem” is short for the Latin “pro tempore,” which simply means “temporary.” Pro tem judges must have been in active law practice at least 10 years and go through special training to sit as a judge. They literally donate their time helping out their local courts, generally in areas they practice or are familiar with.
So, in family court, you’ll find divorce lawyers sitting pro tem, lightening the load of the regular judges, helping to carefully and properly get cases moving through an often overcrowded calendar.
Frequently, lawyers who handle auto accident cases are assigned to traffic court, as much of their practice has involved application of the Vehicle Code, rules of the road, and so on.
Criminal defense attorneys will typically sit in criminal court, probate lawyers in probate court, juvenile attorneys in juvy, etc. In short, Superior Courts — especially in large counties — try to match a lawyer’s experience with the cases they will hear as a pro tem. That said, a well-trained and flexible pro tem is able to accept many assignments, even in areas that are not his or her specialty, as could be required of any judge.
Training is thorough
While at one time there was no required training, that has all changed, and we now take a large number of classes. They consume a great deal of time and study, followed by something most of us have not had in years — real tests! The courses are excellent, and as they prepare the lawyer for this new job, there is a feeling of both excitement and asking yourself, “Can I really learn all that material?”
For, when the realization hits that you will be the person wearing that black robe, the enormity of the task-the responsibility-of what judges have on their shoulders every day suddenly goes home. It’s something like realizing for the first time just how tough a job it is to be a parent — how difficult it must have been for your parents— when now you are a mom or dad.
Full-time Superior Court judges do not have it easy, not just the time requirements — which are huge-but emotional demands, the realization that every day they have a direct impact on the lives of so many.
The traffic officer can be your best friend
In my court, after the trial calendar is called and everyone is sworn in, I make the following statement:
“Thank you all for coming today. While few people look forward to going to trial on a traffic ticket, it is proof of something so incredibly valuable the founders of our country gave us: The right to have, even a traffic ticket brought before a judge. In many countries this right does not exist. There is an excellent chance that very few of your cases will go to trial today, and here’s why:”
“For those you who would like to try to settle your ticket — I encourage raising your hand. While not obligated, many of the officers here today will step outside of the courtroom with you and chances are excellent that a resolution can be found.”
At that time, most hands are raised, and out they go, returning a few minutes later. In more than 80 percent of the cases, in my court, that “solution” is far more than most citizens would ever imagine possible.
I stand in amazement at the kindness shown by these officers, be they CHP, local police or sheriff’s deputies, on condition they are shown respect and dealt with honestly.
So often a defendant was written up for greatly exceeding the speed limit, or a trucker in some violation, and when they come back into court, the officer states the following: “Your honor, with the court’s permission, the people agree to amend the citation to show a violation of Vehicle Code Section 21710, known as coasting, for a fine of $XYZ, and upon a guilty or no contest plea, dismissal of the speeding charge.”
Coasting carries no point count. It will not raise your insurance. Fines can be well under $100, but that is not cast in concrete. The bottom line is that if the officer has written a good ticket — and most are
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.