In the middle of a so-called “belt tightening” session of the Legislature where partisan budget battles are just beginning to heat up, the introduction of a bill by a Flathead conservative Republican that increases state spending and employees seems highly unlikely. But that’s just what happened in January, when Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, introduced SB 158, which would add six new district judges across the state to Montana’s court system – including one in the Flathead’s District 11.
Despite a price tag of nearly $2 million a year for the new judges and support staff, Barkus said he carried the bill to relieve an overburdened court system and simply because, “the judges asked me to.” That the bill cleared the GOP-controlled Senate easily, 44-7, indicates Barkus is not alone among Republican and Democratic lawmakers who believe, despite its cost, the Legislature must take action to relieve a badly overburdened judicial system.
But Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s principled opposition to any bill that increases state spending leaves the fate of the legislation unclear. Barkus said he is hopeful the forthcoming federal economic stimulus package may relieve spending burdens enough in other areas to allow the state to “squeeze” in his bill.
Whatever its outcome due to budget constraints, though, few lawmakers seem willing to argue against the need for more district judges in Montana. In his Jan. 19 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee supporting the bill, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath called SB 158 “the number one priority this legislative session for the judicial branch.”
Out of those counties in need of an additional district judge, Flathead County ranks among the highest, based on a judge workload study that provides the rationale for Barkus’ bill. Conducted by the National Center for State Courts, the study paints a picture of a judicial system in Montana under increasing stress. While Barkus’ bill requests six new judges, Montana requires 16, according to the study.
By assessing added weight to complex cases requiring greater time, the study provides a more accurate picture of the workload placed on judges. A child abuse case requires significantly more time than a simple probate case or the issuance of a search warrant, which the study reflects.
“This study demonstrates that judges faced increasingly large and increasingly complex caseloads which impact, of course, the judges’ ability to resolve all these cases in a timely manner,” Flathead District Judge Katherine Curtis told lawmakers in her testimony to the Judiciary Committee.
The number of filings handled by Flathead County’s District 11 increased from 4,153 in 2006 to 4,546 in 2007. By comparison, Gallatin County’s District 18, which, like the Flathead has three judges, handled 3,025 filings in 2007.
Curtis noted in an interview last week that when a third judge was added to the Flathead in 2000, she and Judge Ted Lympus handled about 1,500 cases each – the highest workload in the state at the time. With the three judges now handling more than 4,500 cases, the workload has returned to that level.
“Of the districts requesting more judges, ours is the highest per judge workload,” Curtis said. “That does reflect how much of the caseload here the three of us are unable to address in a timely manner.”
The result, Curtis added, is that the judges spend the brunt of their time handling cases with urgent time limits imposed by state law, like mental commitments, orders of protection and criminal cases.
The unfortunate byproduct of this prioritization is that civil cases get delayed: A couple wishing for a divorce is unable to get on with their lives, or an accident victim waits to see who pays for their medical treatment, or a wrongfully terminated employee can’t receive the wages to which they are entitled.
“These people just wait and wait and wait,” Curtis said. “We all believe the difficult economic times are going to result in more workloads for the courts, not less.”
Frustration over the delays has spread to the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and some local attorneys, who testified in support of Barkus’ bill.
Bigfork Attorney Randall Snyder wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “there is no hope of getting nonjury cases decided in a timely manner” in Flathead County.
“I know of other counsel and I personally have had cases settle, not because of merits, but because the litigants cannot get a decision,” Snyder wrote. “Our judges work tirelessly and treat the public well, but they cannot work weekends or evenings just to keep up. And we cannot allow the public and local business to not have a functional judiciary.”
The Flathead’s district judges, under Court Administrator Bonnie Olson, have instituted a number of efficiencies to speed up processing time. Unlike elsewhere in Montana, only two court reporters serve the three judges. And the judges rotate among the different courtrooms, depending on the type of case they’re handling. Additionally, one judge handles all criminal cases on Thursdays, and another handles juvenile cases on Fridays, freeing up the other two judges on those days. But these measures can only speed up the number of cases the court can process by so much.
“I know firsthand how hard these three people work,” Olson said. “It’s frustrating not to be able to do the job you’d like to be able to do.”
Even if the Legislature adds the six judges across the state, they wouldn’t begin until 2011, after being elected in Nov. 2010, when the need for another judge will be even greater.
As the session wears on the spending priorities in the state budget will grow clearer, and with it, the fate of Barkus’ bill. Should it fail, Curtis said the Flathead district judges will simply continue working as best they can to manage their increasing caseloads, and persist in letting legislators know the problem isn’t going away.
“If they’re determined they’re going to say no to everything, then we’re spinning our wheels,” Curtis added. “This is really not about us; it’s about what we’d like to do for the people we serve.”
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