Montana Supreme Court Steps in to Redistribute ‘Heavy Caseload’ in Flathead

District Court Judge David Ortley has taken zero new cases since spring in order to focus on backlog

By Clare Menzel
Judge David Ortley at the Flathead County Justice Center. Beacon File Photo

With a backlog of cases stacking up in Flathead County District Court, the Montana Supreme Court has temporarily transferred more than 270 cases between departments in hopes of smoothing the transition when Judge David M. Ortley steps down from the bench in January 2017.

Ortley has not assumed any new cases since May, and over the last four-and-a-half months, 271 cases, including 44 pre-existing family law cases, have been transferred to Flathead County District Court judges Amy Eddy, Robert B. Allison, and Heidi J. Ulbricht. When Ortley’s successor takes the bench in January, the clerk of court will begin the process of signing them back over to that department.

The Supreme Court has also permanently appointed six of Ortley’s cases to retired Flathead District Judge Katherine Curtis. They will remain under Curtis’ purview in 2017.

“The Flathead Judicial District is one of, by far, the busiest districts. They have an extremely heavy caseload … we’re trying to stay on top of the caseload and make it manageable for the new judge,” said Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who noted that this is “not at all unusual.”

McGrath said the Supreme Court is currently taking similar measures with Justice Patricia O’Brien Cotter, who is retiring. Cases were also diverted in the fall of 2015 before former Flathead County District Judge Ted O. Lympus’ retirement. Last fiscal year, the state judicial branch spent $163,604.84 outsourcing cases to retired judges across Montana.

Ortley, who announced in August that he would not seek re-election after six years on the district court, currently has 693 cases open, re-opened, pending, or active.

“It was decided, because of the volume of cases I had, both pending and awaiting decision, that I begin to cut back on the amount of time I spent in the courtroom so I could spend more time researching and drafting decisions,” Ortley said. “I am wrapping up all the cases I have with the goal of when the new judge, presumably Judge [Dan] Wilson, takes office, the current cases that are open are current and ready to pick up.”

No candidate is challenging Wilson in the November general election.

“At some point, I’m going to have to stop handling cases in court … sometime early this fall,” Ortley continued. “Frankly, I’m trying to delay that as long as I can so as not to increase the burden.”

Since May, Ortley’s Flathead County District Court peers have assumed 271 cases that are generally “smaller, less complicated [and] relatively easy for a judge to absorb,” Ortley said.

“The cases that have been assumed are really assumed by judges that believe they can do justice to their own caseload and pick up new cases, and that’s difficult to ask of any judge,” he said.

It’s particularly difficult to ask judges to take on extra work in Flathead County, where there has already been “an extremely intensive caseload increase” since 2009, according to McGrath. In 2009, the district court saw 4,703 cases, a total that shot up to 5,638 by 2015. Child abuse and neglect cases increased from 102 to 146 between 2009 and 2015, criminal cases increased from 853 to 1,020, and domestic-relations cases increased from 897 to 1,293, according to McGrath.

“That’s a pretty dramatic increase,” he said.

Unrelated to Ortley stepping down, Lincoln County District Judge James Wheelis, retired Flathead County District Judge Stewart Stadler, and retired Missoula County District Court Judge Douglas Harkin have also assumed eight cases from Flathead County District Court.

After completing a recent workload study, the Supreme Court determined that, in order for district judges to have an appropriate caseload, Montana would need roughly 20 additional judicial appointments statewide, with 2.5 additional judges in Flathead County, according to McGrath. Currently, 46 district court judges in Montana manage some 50,000 cases annually.

Next legislative session, McGrath will make the case for adding five new judicial appointments statewide — one each in Flathead, Missoula, and Cascade counties, and two in Yellowstone County. A single judgeship costs the state an additional $500,000 per year, according to Supreme Court administrator Beth McLaughlin.

“It’s an expensive budget item — it’s not realistic to think the Legislature would do any more,” McGrath said. “We’re hopeful to think this will be well-considered.”

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