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Archive for Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Study looks at how Kansas court system operates

January 18, 2012

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The conversations Kansas Supreme Court justices are having with each other this month likely are different from the legal issues they are accustomed to deciding.

The state’s highest court has devoted days to discussing a recent report by its appointed Blue Ribbon Commission that spent nearly a year reviewing the operations of the Kansas court system.

The commission’s recommendations are expected to be released to the public later this month, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss wrote in a recent letter to the state’s judicial branch employees. State court leaders also performed a “weighted case load study” as part of the process.

Chief district court judges across the state in December met with members of the Blue Ribbon Commission for a briefing on the topics the report will cover, although the judges didn’t hear any specific recommendations, Chief Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild said.

The commission has been examining the state’s court system for efficiencies and savings, but implementing certain changes across the state would create political questions as well.

“There’s probably enough money allocated in the budget that we could provide better service with the money we have statewide,” said Fairchild, the administrative judge for Douglas County. “But whether we can overcome all of the political and practical obstacles to get the job done, I don’t know.”

The Supreme Court justices are expected to make specific recommendations — especially on issues that would require statutory or even constitutional changes — to the Legislature this session.

Key topics the Blue Ribbon Commission covered include:

• Electronic filing of documents and computer hardware courts use.

• The use of a centralized documents system.

• Remote video conference technology for some hearings to cut down on travel time and cost for judges in multicounty districts.

• Docket fees and collections.

• Use of court reporters, translators and interpreters.

• Training for judges and personnel.

• Possible consolidation of the state’s 31 judicial districts.

• Court rules.

• The role of speciality courts, such as for domestic violence and drug offenses.

Fairchild said it’s still a guessing game at this point about what the recommendations will be.

“The question is whether everybody is going to be able to have a trial within their own county,” he said.

And if major changes are proposed, things could still get complicated.

As an example, in January 2010 the Legislative Division of Post Audit released a report saying the state would save $8.1 million if it consolidated to seven judicial districts, and it combined Douglas County with 10 other counties in the area. Fairchild was not a fan of that scenario saying Douglas County was included with counties it “had nothing in common with.”

“It would cause lots of issues that nobody’s going to be happy with,” he said.

But he also said the commission’s study is designed to produce hard data to identify if some districts have less support than they need and some might have more.

“That’s speculation,” Fairchild said. “That’s what this is designed to ferret out.”

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