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Court backlog likely to worsen

by Jane Stebbins

Year Case filings Number of judges No. per judge

1985 1,125 3 375

2002 3,117 3 1,039

BRECKENRIDGE – District Court Administrator Chris Yuhas laughed when asked when she thought Summit County might see the judge promised to the Fifth Judicial District two years ago.

“It depends on what day it is and what committee the bill is in,” she said. “I’m telling everyone, “Don’t count on anything until the governor’s ink is dry on that bill.'”

The bill is part of the state Legislature’s four-year plan to seat 24 new judges throughout the state. Funding for six of the judges was allocated last year, but the state House of Representatives last week voted against funding the second phase of hiring.

“And we’re in phase four,” said County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom. “They said they thought it was more important to give raises to sitting judges instead of hiring new ones.”

Lindstrom said he wonders if that decision won’t delay hiring new judges by a year, but state officials have told him it won’t.

The Senate could reverse the decision made on the long bill (state budget) and approve it and we’d all be back on track,” he said. “It’s up in the air.”

County officials say the state’s indecisiveness makes it difficult to make plans for a remodel of the Justice Center, of which a part is a new courtroom. Having two more judges in the district – Eagle County was originally slated to get a district judge in 2003 – also would eliminate the need for sitting judges to travel between the four counties in the Fifth Judicial District.

“If we know we’re not going to get it, we’ll hold off on our construction plans for one year,” Lindstrom said. “But we’ve been told this doesn’t affect our future judge. They say it’s tentatively denied this year, but we’re still on schedule for 2004.”

Another unknown is the status of a three-quarter-time magistrate Summit County has used to address family law, juvenile cases and domestic relations.

“There is no money for any kind of a contract this year,” Yuhas said. “If we don’t get a new judge or contract for a magistrate, we are going to be up a creek.”

In 1985 – the last time Summit County got a new district court judge – there were 1,125 new filings, or 375 cases for each judge. Last year, Yuhas said, there were 3,117 new filings.

“Three judges are handling more than twice what they were in 1985,” she said. “And with three judges in four counties, they’ve got to travel. And in the metro area, they have divisions: criminal, family civil. All that judge has to do is stay up on that part of the law. Not our judges. They have to be up on every change in every law: domestic, probate, juvenile, criminal.”

Local judges have become more active on state committees and in community events.

“All I know, is that when I come in on the weekends, they’re here,” Yuhas said. “When I leave at 6 or so, they’re here. When they’re covering Lake County, Eagle, Clear Creek county, they come back real late. They come in early, leave late and take their home work with them.”

To alleviate crowded dockets, county judges were given the authority to do dispositions and keep Class 4, 5 and 6 felonies – the lesser of the criminal evils – in their court.

“But that increases their workload,” Yuhas said. “We’re pretty backlogged. We’re scrambling.”

Combined Courts employees are also trying to streamline the processing of felony cases and limit the number of continuances allowed in civil cases.

“We want it to be at the point where every time you put your hands on a case something substantive has happened,” Yuhas said. “We want to expedite the cases so they aren’t just sitting there on the docket.”

Lindstrom suspects the Senate will approve the current bills granting district judges a raise.

“Then everyone’s going to have to take a hard look at their schedule,” he said. “We’ll probably have to have a sit-down and talk about future plans. I think all we’re doing is postponing the inevitable.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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