Archive for Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Panel gathering reaction about possible cuts to Kansas court system

May 24, 2011


— A statewide effort to make the court system more efficient will not necessarily fall most heavily on small courts, members of a panel gathering public input on the issue said.

A three-member panel of a commission traveling the state for public hearings said in Salina on Monday that Wyandotte, Johnson, Shawnee and Sedgwick counties account for 47 percent of the state's $113 million judicial system budget, while the cost of a magistrate judge in a rural county is comparatively small.

"If I'm a bank robber, I'm going to go where the banks are," said Riley and Clay County District Judge Meryl Wilson. "A lot of the counties think this is only a small county issue we're dealing with, and it's really not."

A cost comparison done by a University of Kansas economics professor found that the costs of providing judicial services in states with larger, more consolidated judicial districts were higher than the cost per case of Kansas' current system, said Calvin Williams, a Colby attorney.

"He kind of shot that whole idea down, and a lot of us were glad to hear it crash," Williams said.

Kansas ranks 44th in what it pays judges, Wilson said, and the cost of maintaining rural court personnel is often less than $150,000 a year per county, compared with much higher expenses for judicial services in more populous areas, Williams said.

A statewide computer system for e-filing might allow clerks in less populated areas to help set up court files for larger counties, said Wilson, who estimated the system is probably two years away from being implemented.

Members of the panel were appointed by Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss to study the court system and make recommendations to make it more cost-efficient and to improve service and access to courts. Those recommendations to Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Supreme Court are expected in November.

"When the chief justice called me and asked me to be on the commission, he flat told me he thinks whatever comes out of this committee may change the way we practice law for the next 50 years," Wilson said.

Ideas presented in Salina included:

  • Increasing use of video and teleconferencing so that defendants don't have to be brought to court for short hearings.
  • Develop a state pool of interpreters to help counties cut costs. Saline County Court Administrator Todd Heitschmidt said in 2005, Saline County paid $1,500 for interpreters, but last year the cost had increased to $9,000.
  • Have a statewide recommended procedure for making public records available.
  • Have uniform hours statewide that court offices are open to the public.
  • Schedule appellate court hearings somewhere closer to home for attorneys arguing the case.
  • Provide educational opportunities for attorneys not familiar with computerized case filing.


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