Judges in California criminal cases are important because they preside over all the proceedings – whether it be a preliminary hearing, a trial, and some sort of a plea negotiation between the prosecutor and defense. The judge is most powerful when it comes to sentencing people.
Preliminary Hearing Judge
The judge really cannot interfere with the charges that the prosecutor has filed unless the judge finds that the prosecutors haven't presented any evidence in order to substantiate the charge. The preliminary hearing a judge could dismiss the case. If it's not a preliminary hearing, it could be at the end of the People's case in a trial. The judge, through an 1118 Motion by the defense, can say, I've listened to your evidence and I'm going to dismiss your case. But beyond that, they really can't mess with the charges.
Where the judge is powerful is when it comes to a sentencing situation where the parties have not agreed on the sentence already, then the judge can say, I'm going to sentence the person to this. Also, if a person violates their probation when they're on probation to a judge, the judge will have the choice as to exactly what the sentence is.
There are a number of different names for individuals who preside over courts in Los Angeles County. Obviously, judge is one of them. Commission is another one. That is a person who is not a full judge, but somebody who can still preside over cases.
They are usually hired by the judiciary in order to deal with court's calendars – whether it be a trial calendar, a preliminary hearing calendar – so even though they are not an official judge, a commissioner has some power as well, but the defense still has to stipulate or agree to the commissioner because each defendant in a criminal case in Los Angeles is entitled to have a judge hear their case unless they agree to permit a commissioner to handle the case.
Another name for a judge would be a magistrate; not really much different. Usually, where I see the term magistrate used in the federal court when a person makes the first court appearance, they call that judge a magistrate.
Selection of Judges
When it comes to how they select judge, they are either selected by the Governor of the state of California to preside in any of the courthouses in California, or a judge can actually be elected by the people of Los Angeles when the judge's seats come up and they are put in a court and the judiciary in Los Angeles has a body that pretty much presides over all the judges and they discipline any judges if the judge has an issue.
They also appoint and place judges in the various courts throughout Los Angeles County. Usually what I've seen – and I've been doing this twenty-five year – is once a judge is put in a court, that's pretty much their courtroom unless they are a new Judge and they're working their way up the ranks.
For example, in downtown Los Angeles, Department 30 is the felony arraignment court and what ends up happening is judges are coming in and out of there all the time because that's a tough assignment and the judges would rather have a trial court where they can listen to trials and deal with their own cases,
So, once a judge works their way up the ranks, either through the preliminary hearing court or the arraignment court in Los Angeles, or maybe doing traffic trials, or however the judiciary decides to utilize that judge, eventually they're going to end up in their own courtroom and that's pretty much where they stay for their entire career unless they decide to advance, like to be an appellate judge for example.
So pretty much, I know all the judges in Los Angeles county and the various courts because I've been in all of those courts and usually they're not changing a lot of those judges around except for in the arraignment courts or if a judge is in a preliminary hearing court, for example, and then they get moved up to a trial court. I think that's probably the goal of most judges is to get their own trial court in Los Angeles so they can deal with their own cases.
So, one that I think is important when you're talking to your criminal defense attorney about your case you want to know who the judge is and you want to know what their tendencies are. In other words, what will move them as far as sentencing either for the good or for the bad and then you want to try to position your case accordingly, so that when your judge sentences you, you end up with the best possible sentence.