County chooses Lawrence attorney to become new judge pro tem; position to begin next week

A Lawrence attorney who specializes in domestic cases has been appointed as judge pro tem with the Douglas County District Court in the latest effort to speed up the county’s judicial process.

Bethany Roberts will start her duties with the court Jan. 2. She will be the second Douglas County taxpayer-funded judge pro tem with the 7th State Judicial District of Douglas County, which also has six state-funded District Court judges. Unlike district court judges, which are appointed by the state, pro tem judges are hired locally and are restricted in the types of cases they can hear.

Roberts has been an attorney with the Lawrence law firm Barber Emerson, specializing in cases involving child and adult victims of domestic, sexual and dating violence, Court Administrator Linda Koester-Vogelsang said. Roberts has left that position to become judge pro tem. She also is an adjunct professor at Washburn Law School, teaching topics related to child and family law.

Prior to her Lawrence work, Koester-Vogelsang said Roberts was the managing attorney with Kansas Legal Services in Topeka after earning her law degree in 2003 from the University of Kansas.

In July, the Douglas County Commission agreed to fund a request from Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Peggy Kittel to provide $130,000 in the 2018 county budget for the salaries of a second judge pro tem and an administrative assistant.

The County Commission agreed to add the second pro tem with the hope the position would allow District Court judges to spend more time on criminal cases. Although pro tem judges can’t preside over felony cases, they can oversee felony first appearances and cases involving juvenile offenders, child support modifications, traffic and small claims civil actions.

The County Commission’s goal in adding the second pro tem position was to help ease overcrowding at the county jail through the quicker disposition of criminal cases. Part of the jail’s crowding issues involve inmates who are awaiting trial. Many of those inmates are facing felony charges, which can require greater amounts of court time.

According to Kansas Judicial Branch, Douglas County District Court had 625 felony cases come before it in fiscal year 2016. That was an increase from 538 in fiscal year 2015 and was the largest number since fiscal year 2007, when there were 629 felony cases before the court.

Roberts will be the first additional judge added to the Douglas County District Court since the state approved a sixth district judge in 2005. The county has funded a judge pro tem for about two decades.