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Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Judicial responsibility

July 4, 2001

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It's maddening that the state is refusing to take responsibility for properly funding state courts.

Anyone looking for an example of how budget decisions made by the Kansas Legislature have put new and unreasonable burdens on local governments need look no further than Douglas County District Court.

Despite growth in the county and increases in the court's workload, requests to state legislators to approve funding additional for judicial personnel have fallen on deaf ears. According to local court statistics, criminal and civil case filings increased almost 88 percent in the 1990s. The caseload has grown by 64 percent since the state approved an additional district judge for Douglas County in 1994.

To help deal with the load, Douglas County commissioners last year agreed to supplement the state's court funding by allocating $65,000 to hire a judge pro tem and a full-time secretary. Their hope was that this would be a temporary measure until the state funded another judge.

Instead of providing adequate funding for judges and court staff, however, legislators approved a statewide court budget that is $2 million below what the courts said they needed to operate on. Even with a hiring freeze, the elimination of travel allowances for magistrate judges and a reduction in funds to hire temporary personnel, the state's judiciary is more than $528,000 short of meeting its expected expenses.

Although state legislators went to great lengths to avoid any tax increases this year, local officials probably won't have the same luxury. County commissioners, trying to reduce a proposed 19 percent increase in the county mill levy, are considering a number of difficult cuts. One of those is the possible elimination of the judge pro-tem position.

Eliminating that position, the commissioners reasoned, not only would reduce the court's budget; it also might eliminate the need for an additional assistant requested by Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney. Kenney justified her request by saying the addition of the judge pro tem had increased her office's workload. The DA's workload may be increasing, but reducing the number of judges isn't the right answer.

In fact, the majority of cases on the court's docket have no impact on the DA's workload. During the last fiscal year, 1,595 criminal cases (21 percent) were filed in Douglas County District Court compared with 5,974 civil and domestic cases (79 percent). That means that for every case filed by the DA's office, the court also had to handle four other cases filed by other parties.

County commissioners no doubt are frustrated by the state's lack of response to their judicial budget realities. Four other counties, all with per-judge caseloads lower than Douglas County's, also have hired pro tem judges to supplement their staffs. Funding the judge pro tem for a second year puts the county one step closer to permanently accepting that responsibility a responsibility that clearly belongs to the state.

But the idea that having fewer judges will somehow reduce the number of cases is a little like saying that having fewer police officers will reduce crime. It's likely the number of both civil and criminal cases will continue to increase in the years to come. Reducing the number of judges would only make it more difficult to move those cases through the court system.

On the Fourth of July, it probably is worth noting the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of citizens' "right to a speedy and public trial." Douglas County's commissioners and judges should redouble their efforts to make the state take its share of this responsibility. Until that happens, however, it seems the county has little choice but to continue its stop-gap measure of funding a judge pro tem.

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