Local Voice: $25 million savings, the circuit court and going forward

By Hon. Virgil C. Smith

Chief Judge, Wayne County Circuit Court

President Obama acknowledged in his State of the Union address that we, as a people, face “big and difficult challenges” thanks to the economic storm that has rocked this country. To help weather this storm, over the last year the Wayne County Circuit Court has made significant advances in not only reducing its own costs, but also saving or earning the State of Michigan and Wayne County significant amounts of money.

How significant? $25,288,562.00 is precisely the amount of money that the Wayne County Circuit Court has  earned for or saved the citizens of Wayne County and the State of Michigan over the past year. To achieve this, the Court has trimmed its own operations through eliminating positions, cutting back on benefits and reducing inefficiencies. Beyond these traditional cost cutting measures, the Court has also accomplished large savings in successfully renegotiating contracts with attorney groups who represent minors in juvenile proceedings, and revising its procedures in its Juvenile Division which resulted in huge multi million dollar savings for the County’s Child Care Fund.

The Court has brought about these accomplishments in the face of unique challenges.

First, the Court has the largest caseload in the State, as well as one of the largest in the Country. In 2009 the Court’s total caseload was 114,196 cases of all types, out of which were 79,741 new case filings of all types. And these statistics do not take into account approximately 12,000 post trial motions that are filed with the Court in domestic relations cases after a case is supposedly closed! Nor do these statistics reflect the 286,674 open cases serviced by the Friend of the Court.

Second, the Court lacks much of the technology that has enabled other neighboring courts and indeed, County government to maximize their effectiveness. For example, several of the Court’s computer systems are based on technology that, while current in the late 20th Century, are now obsolete as we move into the second decade of the 21st Century. Amazingly, the Court still labors under several computerized systems that cannot communicate with each other!

Lastly, unlike virtually any other court in the State, the Court’s core operations in its four divisions (Criminal, Civil, Domestic Relations and Juvenile) and the Friend of the Court — both judicial and administrative — are spread out over four buildings, spanning a distance of more than two and half miles! The fact that the Court’s computer systems are not integrated and modernized only exacerbates the logistical problems faced by the Court’s administration in operating out of four buildings.

While staggering caseloads are an immutable fact of life for the Court, having obsolete technology and being spread out over multiple sites need not be. Several months ago, the County Executive touted the fact that the County had spent more than $30 million to acquire and technologically modernize the Guardian Building, and that by moving the County’s Administrative offices from the Old County Building to the Guardian Building, the County would annually save $2 million (more recent news accounts peg the total acquisition and renovation costs at $47 million with savings of almost $3 million per year). Certainly, by that yardstick the County could use the savings and earnings that the Court has already realized and conceivably save up to another eight million dollars a year by consolidating all of the Court’s operations into one suitable building. Further significant efficiencies would be attained by having one building house the Court’s operations. These would include reduced security costs. Also, considerable savings could be realized from the reduction in the costs of maintaining all these buildings, since three of four buildings (Lincoln Hall of Justice, the Penobscot Building, and the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice) need significant rehabilitation given their present dilapidated condition. Relocating the Court’s operations into a consolidated building would also allow the Court to modernize its technology in a cost-effective manner similar to what was achieved by the County’s move to the Guardian Building.

Beyond the substantial dollar savings that would surely come from consolidating the Court’s operations into one building are the immeasurable benefits to the public that would be realized by having all divisions of the Court in one building. For example, no longer would a family who had a juvenile matter in the Lincoln Hall of Justice have to travel back into Downtown to have a domestic relations matter heard in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center or a Friend of the Court matter heard in the Penobscot Building. Instead, that family could have all matters related to it heard in one building by one judge, and thereby achieving the Legislature’s goal of “One Family - One Judge.”

The only way to improve public service is to move the Court into the 21st century — that means technological renovation and consolidation of court operations into one building. Citizens should demand these improvements for the fair, speedy and cost effective administration of justice by contacting their Wayne County Commissioners immediately. We need to move forward now.

Questions should be made to Godfrey J. Dillard, of counsel to the Wayne County Circuit Court at (313) 964-2838 or (313) 610-5393.