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Judge reductions bill coming as affected communities express qualms

July 28, 2015

Sen. Rick JONES (R-Grand Ledge) Friday announced he’s introducing legislation to codify suggestions from the State Court Administrative Office to implement a net cut of six trial court seats.

But in many of the communities slated to lose a seat, judges and lawmakers representing them say they have serious concerns with the prospect of cutting into courts already struggling to keep up with heavy caseloads. 

Under the recommendations put forward by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) in its latest report, five district court seats are slated for elimination: one in Detroit’s 36th District Court, one in Oakland County’s 52nd District Court and one seat each in Baraga/Houghton/Keweenaw counties, Berrien County and Delta County. Four counties — Monroe, Ingham, Saginaw and St. Clair — were recommended to lose one probate judge seat.  

Royal Oak’s 44th District Court would add a judge seat under the recommendations, and both Oakland County’s 6th Circuit and Probate Court and Macomb County would add a circuit court seat.

“As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee I have requested legislation to make the changes,” Jones said. “It is important to cut judges that are not needed. It costs local and state taxpayers a combined $450,000 per judge.” 

The biggest court that would lose a seat under the recommendations is the 36th District Court in Detroit. After unexpectedly losing a seat two years ago, Rep. Brian BANKS (D-Detroit) and judges serving in the court wonder why their community was targeted again despite being the state’s busiest court. 

Judges in the 36th are currently working several dockets a day and do not have a sitting visiting judge, which sometimes requires judges to take over dockets for others if their colleagues are sick or on vacation. 

An email recently sent to court employees provided to MIRS also honored the staff in the court’s Case Initiation Unit for effectively handling a 37 percent increase in tickets received over the previous few months. 

Banks said he plans to call for amendments to legislation reducing judge seats that would at least keep the 36th District Court at the status quo, if not increase the current level of judges currently sitting in the court. 

“The 36th District Court has some well-respected, learned, highly qualified jurists who sit on the bench,” Banks said. “They are carrying 2 or 3 dockets, sometimes not having a lunch break, to ensure litigants’ cases are seen in a timely manner. They need to be applauded, not penalized.” 

Judge Kenneth KING, who currently sits in the 36th District Court, said judges and their staff are making do with what they have and serving the best they can. But it’s already tough keeping up, he said, and losing another judge would add to current strains on the system. 

“We do more cases in one week, and in some instances in one day, than other district courts do in an entire month — it’s appalling to even entertain the thought of reducing us by another judge,” King said. “We need all hands on deck.” 

In the Upper Peninsula, judges and residents have agreed with past reductions to seats on the bench. But to lose two additional seats this go-around is more of a dispute, Sen. Tom CASPERSON (R-Escanaba) said. 

Casperson said he questions what changed in the 2015 recommendations from 2013, after conversations led the vast majority to the conclusion that those two seats should stay. In two years, he said he hasn’t seen a difference that warrants two reductions affecting four counties in the U.P. 

“Judges have significant travel time, and many of our judges don’t have the same staff and assistance they do in other areas — it’s not comparing apples and oranges,” Casperson said. “I just don’t think things have changed a lot.” 

Rep. Bill LAVOY (D-Monroe) said he wasn’t sure money saved from losing a probate judge in his district would make up for the delays that could face those moving through the judicial system. 

“While reduction in cost to taxpayers is a laudable goal, in this case I feel that due process and service concerns for seniors and children outweigh the benefit from cost reductions,” LaVoy said. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and I’m concerned that losing a judge in the Monroe County Probate Court could slow things down for the people it serves.” 

The recommendations come from the office’s latest biennial review, which uses a weighted caseload formula to estimate the number of judges needed in each court, as well as additional factors such as judges traveling long distances between court locations and changes or trends in population or prosecutorial practices. 

Based on past results of the office’s reports in 2011 and 2013, the Legislature has approved the elimination of 45 judgeships overall — including four Court of Appeals seats — of which 25 have been eliminated so far.  

The State Court Administration Office estimates that annual savings to the state if all cuts suggested in 2011, 2013 and 2015 are implemented will be $7.4 million. 

Cuts to judgeships based on the biennial report are often hotly contested in the Legislature.

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