A local judge who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission that studied improvements to the state’s judicial system believes the proposed repeal of a law requiring a judge in every county is one of the most important proposals offered by that panel.
Riley County District Judge Meryl Wilson chaired the Commission’s sub-group examining the structure of the system. In his assessment of the panel’s work, which was detailed recently by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, Wilson also cited the appointment of more magistrate judges, a switch to electronic filing, and changing statutes that direct percentages of court docket fees to agencies other than the judicial branch, as the most significant proposed changes.
Commission members, who were divided into three sub-groups that reviewed the structural, technological and financial aspects of the judicial system, made their recommendations after traveling around Kansas from April to June 2011 to hold public meetings in 18 different locations including Norton, Colby, Salina, Junction City and Topeka.
The Commission’s final report was presented to the Kansas Supreme Court on Jan. 3, but was only recently released to the public.
Wilson said the requirement that at least one judge live in each county contributes to inefficiency. He said some county courts will process under 100 cases each year, while other courts are processing thousands.
For counties that do not have a high quantity of court cases, he said, a judge from a nearby county should visit the courthouse a couple of days a week.
Wilson acknowledged the recommendation is not a popular one in western Kansas, where, he said, rural residents have expressed concern that they would be losing their courthouse in the same way they have lost schoolhouses and other public features. But, he said, Commission members agreed that some counties just do not have enough court business to warrant a full-time judge. And, since it is the county that pays for maintenance of the courthouse, Wilson said it would not save the state money to get rid of rural courthouses.
He said the Commission agreed that while the state does not necessarily need more judges, there is an improper balance of district judges, who have full jurisdiction, and magistrate judges, who have limited jurisdiction.
He cited four counties with significant populations, including Sedgwick and Wyandotte, that do not even have magistrate judges. That, he said, leaves district judges in these areas working on less complex cases that magistrate judges would typically process in addition to their normal workload.
He said the Commission recommended that when a judging post becomes vacant, a magistrate’s position could be created by the Supreme Court.
They also recommended that all future magistrate judges have law degrees, a point Wilson said was not popular with the Magistrate Judges Association. He said more than half of the magistrate judges in the state do not have a law degree.
Another important recommendation, Wilson said, is to begin the process of electronic filing, which the Commission suggested accomplishing within three years. “We’re still doing things the way we did in 1977,” he said. “That in and of itself tells us we need to change some things.”
E-filing would make case information accessible from any computer on the system and would save clerks’ time, Wilson said. With this system, clerks from small counties could also help process files from courts in busier counties, he said.
He said there would be an up-front cost of $2 million, but according to the report, future costs could be offset by user fees and state funds.
The final major recommendation according to Wilson is that all court docket fees, which are collected from a plaintiff as each case is filed, go entirely to the judicial branch, whose budget, Wilson said is 98 percent for salaries.
As it is, he said, a portion of the fees go to 17 various agencies including the Trauma Fund and Crime Victims Assistance Fund, which do not have to appear annually before the legislature to justify continued funding, as does the judicial branch. It is also recommended in the report that these fees be raised.
Other recommendations in the 154-page report are calls to modernize the preservation of court proceedings by using video and audio equipment, using funds to provide translators in the courtroom and consideration by the Supreme Court of suggesting a number of hours that attorneys are encouraged to voluntarily devote to pro se litigants, the indigent, and general pro bono work.
The Blue Ribbon Commission is composed generally of attorneys, judges and court clerks nominated by various groups including the Kansas Senate, House and Kansas Bar Association and appointed by the Kansas Supreme Court.
The Commission is one part of the Pegasus Project, an initiative started in 2010 by the Kansas Supreme Court to measure efficiency in Kansas courts. The other element was a weighted case-load study, the first in Kansas, begun in August 2010 to measure actual court workloads.
Wilson said all judges in the state along with court clerks kept a log of their work days for two 4-week periods. According to the report, the purpose of the study was to accurately measure the amount of time it takes judges and clerical staff to process court cases from initial filing to final resolution. Results from the case study also influenced the recommendations made by the Commission.
The full report can be viewed at http://www.kscourts.org.