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Archive for Tuesday, July 6, 1999

LOTS OF EXPLAINING KEEPS ORDER IN BUSY MUNICIPAL COURT

July 6, 1999

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The municipal judge tries to keep it simple at Lawrence's do-it-yourself municipal court.

It is the only direct contact some people ever have with the American justice system, when they can find it. So, the judge tries to keep it simple.

Lawrence Municipal Court, 1006 N.H., is housed in an unassuming building just a block away from the grander Douglas County district courtrooms and offices housed in the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

Though the municipal court has a lower profile than the district courts, this workhorse handles almost 40,000 cases a year. And that doesn't count the 78,000 parking tickets written downtown each year and processed by the court.

As busy as the place is, many people still have trouble finding Municipal Judge Randy McGrath's courtroom.

"We still have people going to the wrong building," McGrath said, even though "on their tickets, it says 1006 N.H."

Once people get to the right place, McGrath said, he and the court staff try their best to make the legal process understandable to them.

Explaining the system

Working through a docket of payment reviews during a recent typical day in court, McGrath patiently explained to each person who came before him the options for paying fines.

"You can do community service to pay this off," he told a man who said he didn't have money for a fine.

In a court where many people forego an attorney's assistance and fees by defending themselves against traffic or misdemeanor charges, the judge, city prosecutors and the clerks try to see that everyone's questions are answered.

"We're just dealing with the average citizen," said court manager Beth Visocsky.

And many of them, McGrath said, haven't had tickets before.

The diversity of people who come to municipal court is "one of the things that makes the job interesting," said City Prosecutor Tom Porter.

The court doesn't hold jury trials, though it does try misdemeanor cases from the bench. The maximum sentence McGrath can mete out is a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Though a few defendants retain lawyers, most choose to represent themselves. That makes trials shorter but requires more instruction from McGrath.

"I try to keep them on course," he said.

City prosecutors said they also try to lay cases out clearly for defendants, sometimes making appointments with them to discuss their cases.

"We have a lot of people that come in," Porter said. "We make it real clear that we're on the other side of the case."

A challenging caseload

The municipal court, with five clerks, an accountant, a probation clerk and a part-time judge, handled 36,000 cases in 1998. This year, it is on track to hit 40,000.

"They can range anywhere from a $10 parking ticket to an OUI or a battery," Visocsky said.

In addition to the misdemeanor cases, the court processes thousands of parking tickets, to which most people plead guilty and pay.

With all those cases comes "a ton of paperwork" Visocsky said.

"We have to enter every single one of the those into the computer manually," she said.

A clerk sat with McGrath as he worked through the docket. She had a stack of cases, forms and a computer to help keep all the different offenses straight. McGrath needs to keep things moving in his court -- he only works part-time.

The judge

"On some days, I can be in four different locations," McGrath said.

McGrath, who took over the municipal bench from George L. Catt several months ago, still works at his law practice in the afternoons. He handles criminal cases and bankruptcies.

Given Lawrence growth and the constant increase in cases, McGrath predicts the municipal judge's job someday will become full time.

-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is fhaynes@ljworld.com.

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