Judges face critical future with budget cuts
FRISCO – Chief District Judge Terry Ruckriegle faces an array of challenges if voters today agree he should be retained to the bench for the fourth consecutive time.Ruckriegle, as well as fellow District Judges David Lass and Thomas Moorhead, face retention votes in the Fifth Judicial District. The district comprises Clear Creek, Summit, Eagle and Lake counties. Also on the retention ballot is Summit County Court Judge Ed Casias.Retention votes hit county judges every four years, district judges every six years, appellate judges every eight years and Supreme Court justices every 10 years. The judges face the music but do not campaign. Still, in a brown bag luncheon meeting at the Summit Daily, Ruckriegle and his chief administrator, Chris Yuhas, discussed the status of the courts in regard to a new courtroom now under construction in Breckenridge and budget matters.Yuhas said the Fifth Judicial District is operating at 82 percent of the budget it needs for its caseload.It faced one round of budget cuts last year, forcing layoffs and cutbacks to hours. For example, two years ago, each of the four district judges had their own court reporter.
Budget cuts slashed that to one part-time person for the whole district – Eagle, Lake, Clear Creek and Summit counties. Just this year, she was the court reporter for a murder case in Clear Creek County, the Cody Wieland homicide case in Summit County and the Kobe Bryant rape case. She is leaving the position and her position won’t be refilled.The courts are two years overdue to get a new district judge – a judge whose position has been approved, but for whom there is no money. This year, Ruckriegle has submitted a request to fund the judge and four support staff members. The odds of winning the request are slim, he said.Yuhas has no idea what the district will receive monetarily from the Legislature next session.”We’re holding our breath until after the election and someone starts talking about the budget,” she said. “No one’s saying anything at this point. (State Supreme Court) Justice (Mary) Malarky said last time we’ll cut back people, we’ll shorten the hours we’re open to the public, but we will not cut the courts. Everyone’s going, ‘Where’s the money going to come from?'”Numerous agencies in Colorado – Medicaid, education and the Department of Corrections among them – are mandated by law to receive funding. District courts and some 20-odd other agencies get to fight over the remaining piece of pie.
“So maybe you don’t have a judge in this case, maybe it goes to mediation, maybe it’s just a fine,” she said. “We have to think outside the box.”Other states have postponed civil cases to address criminal matters instead. Oregon’s courts are closed one day each week.Since 98 percent of cases don’t go to trial, the Fifth Judicial District has implemented a screening process of sorts that says no district court date will be scheduled until the parties have gone through the preliminary discovery process and mediation or settlement conferences. That means most cases that do go to trial can be scheduled within two to three months.Ruckriegle said the new courtroom in Breckenridge will also alleviate scheduling problems he and Lass experience whenever they try to slate a jury trial.”It expands our ability to have full courtroom proceedings,” he said. “Jury trials put the most pressure on a system for space.”The new courtroom at the Summit County Justice Center is expected to be in operation in December.Caseload numbers are on the rise after about six years of tapering off. And trials are becoming increasingly complex, as well, Yuhas said.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the Kobe Bryant case where if media attention had not been so great, it would have been a straightforward case. But the requests for records, the number of reporters and other matters turned it into a logistical – and expensive – nightmare.”There was no way I could’ve begun to handle the media concerns, the credentials, logistics,” she said. “It was 15 times bigger than anything I’d dealt with before.”Volunteer staffs set up listening trailers to accommodate the overflow from the courtroom. The state provided a public information officer to deal with the media. Others volunteered as bailiffs, keeping order in the hallways. Yuhas set up an Internet site that received 200,000 hits from people downloading documents and other reports. Without that, she said, she would have had to hire 10 people and rent computers, faxes and copier machines.”You never know what’ll trigger the media’s interest in something. Take the Laci Peterson (murder) case (in California). It was a domestic violence case. Those people weren’t famous,” Yuhas said.
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