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Uinta County Herald | Lawmakers Consider Adding Judges to Alleviate Court Backlog ‘Crisis’

By on September 21, 2021 0

Wyoming could expand its district court system to address backlogs and staff shortages in several counties across the state.

If approved by the entire legislature this winter, Natrona, Campbell and Uinta counties will each receive an additional district court judge under a bill introduced by the Joint Judiciary Committee on Monday.

The bill, which was passed unanimously, aims to reduce the growing backlog of cases that a district court judge claimed are reaching a “crisis point” that potentially threatens the constitutional obligation. court to provide citizens with a speedy trial.

“Frankly, the wheels are kind of falling off,” Casper Seventh District Court judge Catherine E. Wilking told lawmakers on Monday.

Due to the existing backlog, a judge told lawmakers, cases filed in September may not be heard in a courtroom until October 2022. And this is the case with some judges reporting cases of 15 to 20 cases per day. Wyoming State Bar officials said they struggled to get time in court, even for a 15-minute civil proceeding.

Generally desirable positions in the Lander and Cody courtrooms have not been filled, in large part due to high workloads and pay levels that remain uncompetitive with the private sector.

“Most people in private practice would have to take a pay cut to be a judge,” said Billie Addleman, partner at Cheyenne Hirst Applegate law firm and president of the Wyoming Bar Association. “The workload and the amount of compensation that we currently give to judges make it a real challenge for people who are considering applying for a judicial position. “

If passed, the legislation will represent the first extension of the court since 2018, when Laramie County received a fourth judge. The total cost to the state would be $ 3 million per two-year budget cycle.

Workloads and recruitment

Members of the Joint Judicial Committee initially considered adding a single judge to the 7th District Court. However, citing heavy caseloads in a trio of courts around Wyoming, lawmakers ultimately chose to expand the number to three.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a months-long hiatus in Wyoming’s legal proceedings, which has created a significant backlog in cases. While the number of cases filed in district courts actually declined in 2020, according to court data, that was not enough to balance demand. The stress on the state’s justice system persisted until 2021, judges said on Monday, creating a deadlock for more than a year.

Lawmakers briefly weighed in adding staff to help existing judges. While the staff is invaluable, the judges said, many of the functions of the judiciary can only be performed by the judges themselves. And right now, they said, there just aren’t enough of them.

Weighted statistics provided by the Wyoming court system show that some judges do the job of three. Many judges report working nights or during their lunch breaks, Judge Casper Wilking said, while others work weekends just to keep up with the heavy workloads. This burden, she said, could threaten the fabric of the judiciary.

“We are encouraged to try to recruit good potential candidates, and we are trying to do that,” Wilking said. “And now when we ask people to apply for this job, we have some really good lawyers who say, ‘Are you kidding? Are you crazy? I don’t want to work so hard. I see your car at the courthouse, working. weekends, nights, working on vacation, and I don’t want to do that.

“So it becomes a crisis, because you’re not going to have good candidates. It is a crisis because we cannot do our job for your constituents in a timely manner, ”she said. Add to that the judges who leave their posts before retirement, she said, and “it’s not sustainable.”

To complicate matters further, some cases are urgent, which can add to the backlog or delay other basic proceedings. Addleman, who specializes in civil cases, said he has grown accustomed to his cases being “thrown out” because of urgent matters like criminal or family cases, which often require significant resources on the part of the body. court.

Without a response, the judges said, the problem could worsen.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about other judges. This is how we can provide the glue to our society, ”Third District Judge Joseph Bluemel told lawmakers.

A bigger problem

The bill is just one part of a series of laws being drafted in response to a burgeoning staffing crisis in the state’s justice system.

While the Wyoming judicial branch tracks the workload of each judge, the Wyoming legislature does not. If passed by the legislature this winter, another new bill passed by the committee on Monday would require a similar data set to be provided to lawmakers in every budget session. The idea is that they could use it to inform decisions on the distribution of judges in each region.

Lawmakers also introduced a bill to amend the Wyoming Constitution to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, a number more in line with other states.

But some say these efforts are still not enough to solve more serious problems. The Wyoming Court System.

Pay rates for judges and their staff are lower than private lawyers, Addleman said, at a time when internal Wyoming State Bar investigations show increasing levels of job dissatisfaction among the organization’s ranks. . Meanwhile, recent cuts to the state’s public defender’s office have put the agency in crisis, with some people refusing to represent some cases.

The solution, Addleman said, is to invest more in these public sector positions.

“I think this is going to continue to be a challenge in our state,” Addleman said. “The whole revenue generation issue right now is ‘how do we pay for compensation adjustments?’ “

WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming.

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