Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is flanked by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, the committee vice chair (left) and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. during a news conference in Lansing Oct. 27. Young had just testified before the committee on the proposed elimination of 45 trial court judges in Michigan.
By Paul Janczewski
Leaders of Michigan courts and the Judiciary Committee from the House of Representatives are optimistic that a plan to eliminate 45 trial court judgeships statewide can be enacted.
That hopeful vibe followed testimony from Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. and State Court Administrator Chad C. Schmucker, who gave legislators insights into the 2011 State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) Judicial Resources Recommendations, which came out a few months ago and called for the state to eliminate 45 judgeships through attrition, as well as four of the 28 Court of Appeals judgeships.
"Today, the House Judiciary Committee took the first step in making lasting and significant judicial reforms that will save taxpayer money while at the same time ensuring they have access to justice through the courts," said Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, chairperson of the committee.
Committee Vice Chair Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, agreed.
"These changes will allow our court system to continue to provide high levels of service, while being fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars," Heise said.
The JRR report, which is conducted every two years, has the unanimous support of the state Supreme Court and nearly every judicial group in the state, as well as the State Bar of Michigan and Gov. Rick Snyder. If the recommendations are followed, officials have said Michigan taxpayers could save $8 million in judicial salaries and benefits, as well as saving local funding units variable costs, such as staff salaries and benefits.
But it could also rebalance the workload of the state's courts, Young said. Some areas have too many judges, others too few, he said.
Past reports have also called for reduction of the state's trial and Court of Appeals, but those recommendations were not implemented.
But Young was encouraged by the response from the committee after his testimony.
"I think this legislature is doing big things in reducing the cost of government," Young said. "And sometimes there's a confluence of events, and things you couldn't get done before, you can (now), and this is one moment in time when doing the right thing seems to be possible."
The package of bills was unveiled only a week ago in the House. Walsh said the recommendations are "a common-sense answer" to a necessary step of down-sizing the state's trial courts. Heise said the reforms detailed in the JRR are needed to create "greater efficiency" in courts across the state.
In his testimony, Young said the adjustments outlined in the report "are long overdue."
"The unfortunate thing is taxpayers are paying more money than they should be paying for their judiciary," he said.
Schmucker and Young told the committee the report came after a very extensive survey that gathered input from 99 percent of the state's judges who participated. It looked at what types of cases each circuit, district and probate judge handled, how long cases took, what travel was required, and how much time judges put into each matter to determine a weighted caseload formula.
Other factors examined which could influence workload, such as population and case filing trends, as well as the economic climate of the state and needs of certain areas, were also considered.
Schmucker, himself a former judge, said he understands from both sides how beneficial to the taxpayers the elimination of judges would be in creating a necessary balance. Each circuit and district was examined, and in some cases, fewer cuts resulted in several areas based on factors unique to those areas. But he is confident that if the recommended eliminations are enacted, no backlog or problems would occur.
And while the JRR said judges should be added in some areas, Schmucker said the SCAO is not recommending those because it is not economically feasible, and those in-need courts felt the local funding units would be unable to handle the additional expenses.
Young told the Judiciary Committee with the overwhelming support the JRR has already garnered, "we've done the heavy lifting for you." He asked them to complete the job earlier legislators ignored.
James Fisher, a retired judge from Berrien County, also testified to the committee, telling them he has held posts in the past with several groups looking at the impact the economic crisis was having on the Judiciary. He said these latest recommendations are "judge-driven," while in the past recommendations to eliminate some judicial positions were "met with angst and objection."
His court was one of the first in the state to test a concept known as concurrent jurisdiction, where functions of circuit, probate and district courts were consolidated.
In some legal circles, there is talk about having circuit, district and probate judges perform the same work, but statutory barriers now in place prevent that.
But Young said the state court system must be transformed. Things that were enacted years ago do not necessarily work now. The JRR also recommended consolidating the 25th and 26th District Courts, and those district courts in the 45A and 45B District.
And he said other steps must be taken to harness the judicial resources of each community and plans put forth that encourage sharing and to figure out the best way to serve the public in the most efficient way. With that thought in mind, the state Supreme Court is proposing only one chief judge, rather than one each for circuit, probate and district courts.
The trio answered a number of questions from committee members, and many appeared to embrace the reports recommendations.
Walsh said up to four more hearings may be held, likely to gather concerns from judges, citizens and other interested parties. But he said a committee recommendation to the House could be voted on by late November.
He said with the bipartisan support received thus far, "we will continue to hear testimony on this important report and make the appropriate recommendations to the full House of Representatives with the goal of saving taxpayer money."
Chief Justice Young said he is very optimistic about the bills going forward.
"It's time for real change that will benefit the citizens of the state," he said.