Legislature to Consider Adding Fifth District Court Judge in Flathead County

State officials say growing caseload too much for judges but local court clerk says new cases are actually declining

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Justice Center. Beacon File Photo

The 2017 legislature is expected to consider adding five new district court judges around the state, including here in Flathead County.

State officials said a fifth district court judge is needed in Kalispell because of a growing caseload facing the judges. But a local court official said they’re looking at a different set of numbers that actually show the number of new cases is on the decline.

Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court Mike McGrath said the district court judge caseload in Flathead County has increased by nearly 20 percent since 2009. That year, the four judges handed 4,703 new and reopened cases. In 2015, that number increased to 5,638 cases.

“These numbers are the basis for our request,” McGrath said. “There’s an obvious need.”

The last time the state added a district court judge in Flathead County was in 2009. A recent state analysis of the court found that the county would benefit from at least two new judges, but McGrath said the judicial branch would only ask for one now.

However, Flathead County Clerk of Court Peg Allison said a different set of numbers tells a different story and she believes the legislature will have a hard time making the case for a new judge. She said that the number of new cases filed in district court has actually dropped by 3 percent, from 4,595 in 2009 to 4,441 in 2015. Through Oct. 1, there have been 3,123 new cases filed in court this year.

“The judges are busy, there’s no question about that, but I don’t know if the legislature can justify a fifth judge,” Allison said.

But Supreme Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin said it’s important to count both new and reopened cases, because reopened cases can take just as much work as new ones. If you do count reopened cases, the workload is increasing.

District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht has been on the bench since 2013 and said she has noticed an increased caseload since taking office.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to deal with all of the cases we have,” Ulbricht said.

Ulbricht said Flathead County’s growing population might be one reason the court is dealing with more cases on an annual basis, however she believes that the valley’s growing drug problem is the primary culprit. According to state judicial officials, the number of new and reopened criminal cases has increased by 22 percent.

If approved by the legislature in 2017, the five new judges would be elected in 2018 and take the bench the following year. The judicial branch is also asking that the legislature consider adding new judges in Yellowstone, Missoula and Cascade counties.

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