Cost of justice

Filed under: News |

From minor traffic court appearances to multi-million dollar commercial judgments, Colorado’s courts see more than 750,000 new cases every year — a rate officials say is unsustainable.
“The volume of cases in the courts and probation that I described place burdens on the system that cannot be met by existing judicial resources,” Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey told the legislature in January. “If you conduct business at one of our courts, almost universally you can expect delays that are excessive by anyone’s standards. … Despite our best efforts, we cannot serve the public as well as we should.”
Population growth, the economy, changes in state law and law enforcement all influence the number of cases before county, district, appeals court and the Supreme Court, she said.
“In the last 30 years, the amount of time a district judge has available to spend on a case has dropped dramatically from approximately one hour per case per year to less than 30 minutes today,” Mullarkey said. “By fiscal year 2008, case filings in the trial courts will have increased by 139 percent in a 30-year period, while judicial officers — including both judges and magistrates — will have increased only 48 percent.”
Mullarkey said that about 190 new judicial officers are needed to match the caseload growth in the trial courts.
To address the need, the legislature is considering House Bill 1054, which would add 63 judges during the next four years. The judicial branch is requesting 49 new district judges, eight new county court judges and six new court of appeals judges.
“… The multi-year plan represents only a partial fulfillment of needs that exist in our courts,” Mullarkey said. “We had to cut our staff by 13 percent when the budget collapsed in 2002-2003. Although we have recovered that number of positions, we have fallen behind because of the increasing caseloads. Allocation of the requested positions will not solve all our problems. It will, however, allow us to resolve disputes in a more timely fashion and reduce the risk of committing avoidable mistakes.”
But local officials, who would have to find the money to pay for the extra positions that would be created as a result of the legislation, aren’t universally in support of the idea.
El Paso County’s Fourth Judicial District would receive eight new district court divisions, increasing the number of judges to 25. County courts would increase from eight to 10 judges under the bill.
That number of judges could place a burden on county finances, said District Attorney John Newsome.
“It does affect us, we file cases in the system and with those cases spread out vertically over the division, it means more dockets, more trials,” he said. “It will impact us, and it will impact the county.”
More divisions would mean that the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office would need more lawyers, and that the sheriff’s department would need more deputies to staff its court units, Newsome said.
“There’s a ripple effect throughout the county,” he said. “The state will fund the judges, but there are support staff that will be needed — that comes from the county.”
Typically, the district attorney’s office has one deputy district attorney for each county court division, and two attorneys for each district court division.
“We’ll need 12 deputy DAs for the district courts alone,” Newsome said. “It’s a burden on the county to find the supporting staff for these new divisions.”
County Commissioner Jim Bensberg agrees, saying the county is prepared for at least one part of the additional expense: adding new courtrooms.
“We’re going to build out the remaining two floors that are currently empty shells in the new judicial annex,” he said. “We’ve issued certificates of participation for $31.4 million to build it out. But that doesn’t give any money to add staff — additional staff for the district attorney, additional security.”
Colorado Counties Inc., a nonprofit organization that represents all 64 Colorado counties, has voiced its opposition to the legislation. The organization’s position is primarily because the bill would use money that is currently being held for transportation to pay for the new judges.
“They believe, and rightly so, that the money shouldn’t be diverted from the money allocated by the legislature for roads,” Bensberg said. “El Paso County has not taken a position on the bill, but I view it as another in a series of unfunded mandates.”
Chip Taylor, legislative director for Colorado Counties, said the bill would have a $78 million impact during its first five years.
“That’s a large reduction in funds,” he said. “And it’s one that concerns many of the counties. The staffing concerns happen every single time you add a new judge — and many districts were looking at capital concerns as well. But we’ve worked out some of those issues with the judicial department. Our remaining concern is about the funding. It’s a huge number and it’s one of the bills that has the largest impact on the general fund.”

Crowded dockets

The El Paso County District Attorney’s office oversees between 50,000 and 60,000 criminal cases each year — and that number is growing.
“El Paso County is now the most populous county in the state,” Newsome said. “And it is a statistical certainty that with more people, you have more crime. It’s a blessing to have more judges, but it’s a curse for the county because it’s going to have to hire more support staff.”
Case loads vary from judge to judge in district court, said Judge David Miller, who oversees civil cases for the Fourth Judicial District. He has firsthand knowledge about the district’s crowded court calendar.
“It is one of the most crowded dockets in the state, if not the most crowded,” Miller said. “Judges who are doing felony cases will have between 400 and 600 cases on their docket at any given time.”
And civil court judges don’t see that much difference in their caseloads, which range between 250 and 350 at any given time.
“In my division, the typical civil case will — at the earliest — get to trail a year and a half to two years,” Miller said. “And that’s just to get to trial. We all devote the time needed for each case, but that means other cases don’t get heard quickly. If you get a complex case, one that involves several different people, several different issues, it takes longer — and that means other cases have to wait longer.”