Summit County: Heavy caseloads create need for additional judge
Ryan Summerlin January 21, 2013
In Summit County’s 5th Judicial District, five judges handle a caseload for four counties that has grown by 71 percent in the last eight years.
Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Dillon) is now trying to add one more to the bench.
“Right now, these district judges have extremely heavy caseloads and this bill will help ensure every judge … is able to give the proper time and attention to their cases,” Hamner said. “This bill will make our judicial system more efficient and speed up the process for people going through the court system.”
Hamner introduced a bill earlier this month that would add an additional judge to both the 5th and 9th districts. The legislation got the nod from the House Judicial Committee Jan. 17 and is headed next to the Appropriations Committee.
District 5 currently has the lowest district judge staffing level in the state with a caseload bulging with more and more civil and domestic cases. The combination propelled the district to the top of the priority list for the Judicial Department, which looks for where additional judges are most needed in Colorado each year.
“They could probably ask for a dozen judges across the state that there is a need shown for, but they don’t do that because we’re still in tight economic times,” said Sr. Judge Terry Ruckriegle, who was the third judge appointed to District 5 in 1984, as an expanding population demanded additions to the bench.
The population of the district grew an estimated 15 percent from 2005- 2010, and is expected to expand an additional 2 percent per year for the next 15 years, ensuring the number of cases filed with local courts will continue to grow.
But Ruckriegle said judicial officials now consider not only the number of cases on the docket, but also the qualitative factors of the time required to deliver well-thought-out rulings in determining which districts most need new judges.
“There’s a qualitative piece that’s not driven by case numbers or by population,” he said.
Unlike trial court proceedings, some cases, such as civil matters, require much more deliberation and decision-making from the judge.
District 5’s caseload has swelled most in the area of civil cases, which have increased 55 percent since 2003. Domestic-relations cases have increased 10 percent in the same time frame.
“It’s taking longer to get through the system and judges are being spread so thin, that it’s really been a disservice to the constituents in the judicial districts,” Hamner said. “I think it’s definitely a win-win for the judicial system and the people who use the system.”
If lawmakers and the governor approve the bill, a new judge will be appointed to serve Eagle County, where the caseload has increased 98 percent since 2003.
Currently there are two judges assigned to Eagle and Summit counties and one assigned to both Clear Creek and Lake, but the judges from the other counties are frequently called in to assist in Eagle.