Due to the budget constrictions and closing of courtrooms and courthouses, your experience is the tip of the future iceberg in California. I don't think the ex parte appoach will work, but other attorneys may differ.
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As correctly noted by Mr. Doland, the budget issues are slowing everything down for everyone. The only cases moving are the criminal matter which have constitutionally mandated time limits.
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I have heard of ex parte applications to compel discovery when you received no response whatsoever and there are no collateral issues such as purported agreements to extend the time to respond. You could not, however, receive sanctions.
If you want to compel further answers because you don't like the ones you got, you will have to schedule a noticed motion.
Some judges will do (and some demand) a discovery meet and confer ex parte, in hopes that everyone (especially the court) can avoid a motion to compel. The judge then gives the parties a good idea of how he/she might rule. I would think the clerk would've mentioned this, but it might be worth a call back to the department to see if it's an option.
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