HELENA — A state commission responsible for redrawing judicial districts has released a slate of proposals aimed at making the court system more able to handle its growing caseload. But in the end, the commission’s work may only underscore the need for more judges, not judicial redistricting.
The legislature established the commission last year to study if realigning the boundaries of the state’s 22 judicial districts might ease the pressures on courts because of the growing number of cases.
“We’ve got to answer the question that the legislature gave us. The answer may be to redraw these lines and, or that the answer may be that redrawing the lines won’t help,” said District Court Judge Gregory Todd of Billings, who chairs the commission. “For the commission to do its job, it needs to look at some of these specific proposals and say why they won’t help.”
The commission will review six proposals drafted by its members when it reconvenes April 6 at the state Capitol. At least one proposal would increase the number of districts by one to 23, while other proposals could combine districts to help free up judges with lower caseloads to absorb work from busier courts.
But none of the proposals calls for adding more judges, even if recent studies suggest that at least 21 more judges are needed.
It would cost about $250,000 a year for each additional district judge, Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin said. There are no current requests for additional judges, even if there is an obvious need, she said.
The growth in drug-related cases has especially increased the burden on the court system and has triggered a rise in other cases, including child abuse and neglect hearings.
The courts were last realigned after the legislature in 1999 expanded the state court system to 22 districts and authorized the hiring of an additional judge. In 2009, funds for three more district judges were approved.
In all, 46 district judges now handle more than 56,000 cases.
“Scheduling has become a nightmare,” said Todd, who presides over a court in Yellowstone County’s District 13, the state’s busiest.
The commission’s key responsibility is to see if redistricting can equitably shift the workload among existing judges — without requiring more money, he said.
Anthony Johnstone, a law professor at the University of Montana, said realigning the courts might be necessary because of shifts in the state’s population. And shifting judges around could help improve efficiency because of the expanse of such a large state.
“But it’s only a partial solution,” Johnstone said.