Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2001

Judicial appeal

December 9, 2001

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A local judge's appeal for more reasonable state funding continues to fall on deaf ears.

If Douglas County District Judge Mike Malone is starting to sound like a broken record, it's because he's trying to call attention to a system that clearly is broken.

Malone was back on the front page of Friday's Journal-World as part of a story he has been calling attention to for several years: the underfunding of the state court system and the effect it is having on the judicial process. He was sharing his concerns with Douglas County commissioners and a couple of state legislators during a meeting last week.

As an example of the problem, Malone cited the fact that a hiring freeze has prevented him from replacing his secretary of 17 years, who retired last month. That has left Malone answering his own phone and acting as what he described as "probably the most overpaid, underqualified secretary in the state of Kansas."

Malone's reference may have been somewhat humorous, but the impact that insufficient funding for both judges and court support staff is having on their ability to do their job is no laughing matter. Twice this year, Malone said, the local court has come close to failing in its constitutional obligation to provide a speedy trial.

Those delays are occurring despite the fact that Douglas County commissioners agreed this year to continue funding for a magistrate judge to ease the load of its five district judges. Because state legislators have refused to create a sixth judgeship for the county, what should be a state financial obligation has been shifted to local taxpayers.

And local judges might tell you that isn't their biggest problem. For several years, insufficient funding has made it necessary to cut back on court support staff. As administrative judge, Malone has had to trim the hours court offices are open to the public to give the staff a chance to catch up on its work. Positions have gone unfilled, creating situations like Malone's lack of a secretary.

This situation is, at the least, penny wise and pound foolish. It makes no sense for a judge to spend his or her time doing work that can and should be handled by a clerical worker. That fact should be apparent to any observer.

What may not be as easy for many people to recognize or measure is the effect this situation has on the ability of our district court to play its intended law enforcement role. Will prosecutors accept more plea agreements to avoid taking cases to trial? Will an overworked staff make mistakes that could affect the outcome of a case? Will there be more cases in which the court is having to juggle its schedule to try to meet the requirements for a speedy trial? Will people awaiting payments resulting from civil judgments experience longer delays because of a backlog in the court clerk's office?

Unfortunately, the answer to all of those questions may already be "yes." Even more unfortunately, there seems little hope that the 2002 Kansas Legislature will provide any relief for court personnel. Malone said on Thursday that he has been told that the governor will recommend cuts, rather than increases in the state's judicial budget, and that the state Supreme Court has recommended no additional staff for Douglas County District Court. And county commissioners are saying that tight financial times may make it impossible for the county to continue to pay for court expenses that should be the responsibility of the state.

Even if he sounds like a voice in the wilderness, it appears this will not be the last time Judge Malone has to make his case. Hopefully, Malone will be joined by other judges in his effort to convince the governor and state lawmakers to take a similar interest in maintaining the integrity of our court system

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