By Roberta M. Gubbins
Local courts would lose judges if the elimination of judgeships recommended by the report of the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) were adopted by the legislature. According to the 2011 Judicial Resources Recommendations report, 54A District Court in Lansing would lose one of its five judges and Clinton/Gratiot County would be reduced one judgeship.
The SCAO report recommends eliminating unneeded judgeships by attrition.
Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr. announced the findings noting that the state must eliminate 45 trial court judgeships as a first step toward “rebalancing the workload” of Michigan’s courts. The report further recommended that the number of Michigan Court of Appeals judges be reduced from 28 to 24, making the total number of judgeships 49.
Reducing judgeships should not lead to congestion and backlog according to the report, which measured how many judges are needed to perform the work of the court.
State Court Administrator Chad C. Schmucker explained that SCAO determined each trial court’s need for judges based on workload.
“We use a weighted caseload formula, so that we’re not looking just at numbers of cases, but also at how much of a judge’s time a particular type of case needs,” Schmucker said. “For example, a medical malpractice case takes longer to process than a traffic ticket. We then do an extended analysis to take into account other factors that might affect a court’s workload – population and case filings trends, for example. The result is the right number of judges for that court’s workload and environment.”
The Court of Appeals analysis focused primarily on numbers of new case filings and opinions, Schmucker said. The appellate court’s filings have declined over the years; from 2006 to 2010, filings fell by 22 percent, he noted.
While some counties would lose judges, eight counties and three third-class district courts need a combined 31 new trial court judgeships. However, the SCAO will not recommend new judgeships due to the state’s economic woes.
Courts that need additional judgeships can use a concurrent jurisdictional plan, which calls for sharing judges, staff and other resources among courts in the same circuit that would compensate for the judicial need.
Young said that the Supreme Court unanimously endorses the report’s recommendations.
“The Court has historically not taken a position either way on the report’s findings, so the Court’s unanimous endorsement is recognition of the superior quality of the JRR,” he noted. The Michigan Court of Appeals, the Michigan Judges Association, the Michigan Probate Judges Association, and the Michigan District Judges Association also endorse the findings, Young added.
“This is unprecedented, not just in Michigan but nationally, to have a state court system not only recognize that it needs to shrink, but also have a practical plan to accomplish that goal,” said the chief justice. “And to have the universal endorsement of the judiciary’s leadership – that has never happened before. This is an aggressive, but achievable, set of recommendations. We are unaware of any reduction of this magnitude attempted anywhere in our country.”
Gov. Rick Snyder also supports the recommendations, Young said.
The average savings to the state per judicial position in salary and benefits is about $157,000. Cost savings to local funding units will vary. Some provide health insurance, while others assign a bailiff, a law clerk, a secretary and/or a court recorder and some counties assign a prosecutor to each judge. Those positions would be eliminated.
SCAO issues a Judicial Resources Recommendations report every two years. While past reports have recommended reductions in the state’s trial and Court of Appeals benches, those recommendations were not implemented, Young said.
“The judicial branch can only recommend; it’s up to the Legislature to act, and we hope that they will act this time,” the chief justice said. “We would certainly not need to make as many reductions now if past Legislatures had heeded SCAO’s findings.”
For a complete list of proposed reductions and findings of needed judgeships, please see the Judicial Resources Report online at http://www. courts. michigan. gov/scao/ resources/publications/reports/JRRSummary2011.pdf.