Concepts to streamline state judiciary proposed

Sunday, February 1, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In an effort to streamline operations and save money, the judicial branch of state government could soon face its first major overhaul in decades.

Like other parts of government, the judiciary has had to engage in its share of belt tightening in recent years. But with 90 percent of its budget dedicated to personnel costs, there is concern that deep cuts could hamper the swift administration of justice.

While state Rep. Richard Byrd, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, believes further savings could be found, he doesn't advocate a sharp reduction in the judiciary's $160.8 million budget and says the courts for the most part have administered their resources well.

"Some relatively small cuts would be made without impairing access to justice," said Byrd, R-Kirkwood. "Large cuts would impair access to justice."

State Sen. Matt Bartle, Byrd's upper chamber counterpart, says the pivotal first step to achieving savings is for voters to repeal the constitutional provision that mandates that each of Missouri's 114 counties have at least one associate circuit court judge. Bartle says the requirement is outdated.

"It is incredibly difficult -- virtually impossible -- to solve the judicial resource allocation problem that we have in our state without addressing that issue," said Bartle, R-Lee's Summit. "We have a system designed on demographics that have dramatically changed."

Bartle's proposed amendment, which he filed last week, would also eliminate the distinction between associate circuit judges, who currently can preside over only certain types of cases, and full circuit judges.

On the surface, that move would seem to cost money rather than save it because associates earn $96,000 a year compared to $108,000 for circuit judges. However, Bartle says the combination of the two components of his proposal would allow the total number of trial-level judges -- currently 322 --to be reduced by up to 5 percent.

"I think we could eliminate positions if we had the ability to move jobs around," Bartle said.

Supreme Court Judge Duane Benton served on a panel of judges that endorsed a similar proposal in 1992. The recommendation went nowhere.

"That one takes a lot of political capital to get done, and then the savings take a long time," Benton said.

Byrd says a push to put Bartle's amendment on the ballot this year will be made in the Missouri Legislature, but he doesn't believe it politically feasible.

"It is going to be a real challenge for that to be passed out of both houses," Byrd said. "It is doubtful that will occur."

New boundaries

What is more likely, Byrd says, is a redrawing of the boundaries of Missouri's 45 judicial districts, which haven't changed in decades. Byrd says rural circuits with low caseloads and small populations could be merged, with the total number of circuits trimmed to 38.

Judge Stephen Sharp, whose 35th Judicial Circuit covers Dunklin and Stoddard counties, says he would be concerned about the creation of geographically large "mega-circuits." Although he wouldn't rule out the concept of redrawing boundaries and shifting judgeships, he isn't sure the idea would play well in the Bootheel.

"I think there would be substantial apprehension in our area about losing judges," Sharp said.

Reducing the number of judges and altering judicial circuits were among the numerous recommendations recently produced by a panel of lawmakers and judges, including Benton and the two judiciary chairmen.

Bartle and Byrd are preparing legislation that contains some of those recommendations. Byrd says the bill will primarily focus on "nuts and bolts" changes, such as revising the duties of court staff, cutting superfluous positions and other proposals targeted at improving efficiency.

One provision will be to end the archaic requirement that when signing search or arrest warrants, a judge must be physically present in the county where the warrants will be executed.

"If that judge isn't available, that means a judge in another county may have to leave the courtroom, drive to the county line and meet the sheriff on the side of the road," Byrd said. "There is no purpose in that."

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle suggested substantial savings could be found in banning the practice of allowing defense attorneys to depose witnesses in criminal cases -- an idea not included the panel's recommendations.

Swingle said Missouri is one of only 10 states that allow depositions in criminal cases. Swingle views such depositions as costly, time-consuming and unnecessary.

"It can chew up days worth of time," Swingle said.

Unlike in civil cases, written statements from arresting officers and witnesses constitute part of the police report in criminal cases, Swingle said.

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