By Paul Janczewski
Will state legislators have the "political courage" to move on a State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) report calling for the elimination by attrition of 45 trial court judgeships and four seats on the Michigan Court of Appeals?
Officials in the judiciary and related associations are cautiously optimistic the findings in the 2011 Judicial Resources Recommendations (JRR) report will be implemented, which would save nearly $8 million for Michigan taxpayers in judges salaries and benefits, as well as saving local funding units variable costs, such as staff salaries and benefits.
The JRR report was released last week at the Hall of Justice by Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. and State Court Administrator Chad C. Schmucker.
Young said by acting on the recommendations, legislators would take a first step toward "rebalancing the workload" of the state's courts.
"Simply put, we have a lot of judges in the wrong places," Young said. "Too many in some areas of the state, and too few in others."
The recommendations have the unanimous support of the state Supreme Court, as well as support of Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Michigan Judges Association, the Michigan Probate Judges Association, and the Michigan District Judges Association.
"Increasing the size of government is easy," Young said, but requires "political courage to reduce it."
He said that it is very rare to see public and elected officials "support the elimination of their own positions."
But with the endorsement of those factions, and Snyder, "we have the sun and the moon aligned. All we need are the stars (the State Legislature) to make this a reality."
The SCAO report is not placing a "red dot" on eliminating individual judges, Schmucker said, but recommends eliminating those targeted judgeships by attrition, when a judge leaves office or dies. The plan calls for elimination of about 8 percent of Michigan's 584 trial judges.
The SCAO is the state Supreme Court's administrative agency, and issues a JRR every two years. Past reports have also called for reduction of the state's trial and Court of Appeals, but those recommendations were not implemented.
Young said the judiciary can only recommend changes, but it's up to the State Legislature to move on them, "and we hope that they will act this time." He said the eliminations called for now would have been fewer "if past legislatures had heeded SCAO's findings."
Officials are confident with the JRR's findings, and hopeful the Legislature will respond.
Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, said the recommendations are consistent with what the State Bar has felt about the needed changes.
Annette Barry, president of the Michigan Judges Association and a Wayne County Circuit Judge, is also "encouraged" by the JRR report.
"Our Michigan judiciary is a phenomenal group of hard working individuals who are great public servants, and together we work as a unified force and we will accomplish our goals," she said.
Unlike in other years, Berry said the inclusion of judges in this latest process gave them a voice.
Ken Tacoma, president of the Michigan Probate Judges Association, said this JRR report is an "evolution" of what has been an ongoing process to identify proper allocation of resources within the judiciary.
"This (report) will force more current jurisdiction plans and more consolidation between the three trial benches, and it will serve the people by consolidating our resources," he said. "It will be a move to make things more responsive to the public needs."
"We'll see how the Legislature and local governing bodies that make up the funding units respond," Tacoma said.
Terry Clark, a Saginaw District Court judge and president of the Michigan District Court Association, also was pleased with the report.
"We have to right-size the judiciary to fit the needs of the people," he said.
The moves are critical for a state mired in the economic woes of a country and experiencing a loss in population. But while the JRR also reported that 31 new trial judgeships are called for in eight counties and three district courts, Schmucker said the SCAO is not recommending those because it is not economically feasible, and those in-need courts felt the same way.
Schmucker said each trial court judge costs the state about $157,500. He said the state would save over $700,000 per year in salaries and benefits by eliminating four seats on the Court of Appeals. There are two vacancies there now.
To come up with the determination the state has an excess of judgeships, Schmucker said the SCAO used a weighted caseload formula for each court based on workload as opposed to the number of cases each court handles. He said a medical malpractice or murder case takes longer than a shoplifting case or a traffic ticket case. He said other factors were also examined which could influence that workload, such as population and case filing trends. And site visits and surveys also were factored into the recommendations.
In determining the Court of Appeals over-abundant judgeships, Schmucker said the SCAO used numbers of filings, which has fallen over the years.
Young said 99 percent of state trial courts participated in the survey used in the JRR. But he said this is not the end of what needs to be done.
"We are asking all courts to look for opportunities to share costs and increase efficiency," he said.
Options can and will include some courts merging and others altering their operations, and that will aid courts that the JRR report deemed may need judges.
Young said this will be a "long term process to make sure that the courts of our state fulfill their constitutional mission and provide the people of Michigan justice under the law, but at no more costs than are necessary."
Schmucker said it could take six to eight years for the number of eliminations to be reached, based on judges ages - they can not run after reaching age 70 - and data from the past which shows that judges leave the bench at the average age of 62.
The JRR report called for eliminating judges in 55 of the state's 83 counties. In 43 counties, the report called for eliminating one judge; 10 counties called for two fewer judges, according to the report; and two counties, Oakland and Wayne, called for the elimination of between four and six judges.
In the remaining 28 counties, no judges would be eliminated. The plan calls for fewer district court judges than circuit court or probate judges, but in some areas the elimination could come from any of those areas.
Along with eliminating 45 trial court judgeships through attrition, the SCAO is also recommending consolidating the 25th and 26th District Courts, and those district courts in the 45-A and 45-B district.
The report said annual savings of $7 million would be saved by eliminating the 45 judgeships. It said the annual total state cost of a judgeship is about $158,364 for a circuit or probate judge, and about $156,500 for a district court judge.
The 81-page report was delivered to Snyder and the Michigan Legislature on August 17.
To view the entire report, go to: http://courts.michigan.gov/scao/resources/publications/reports/JRRSummary2011.pdf.
Published: Mon, Aug 29, 2011