Shortage of state judges creates logjams in courtrooms

Colorado First District Judge Leland Anderson says he loves his job. It's the number of open cases he has to juggle - about 420 - that bothers him.

"It's a great opportunity to see the complexities of life," Judge Anderson says of his work. "But having time to give quality care and service to each case; it can at times be a challenge."

Anderson says he copes by logging 12-hour days, but the Colorado court system is having an increasingly difficult time wading through its heavy caseload. According to a governor's task force, the state needs at least 25 new judges at a price of about $10 million in start-up costs.

While the dearth of judges on the federal bench has been well documented, a similar problem is now emerging in state courts. As many state populations boom and more lawsuits are filed, the demands on judges have grown faster than the number of judges. Already, the problem is straining legal systems - and the judges that staff them - from Maryland to Oregon.

"I certainly know from personal know-ledge that due to shifts in population, there are not enough [state] judges," says Allan Sobel, executive vice president and director of the American Judicature Society. "Counties that were mostly suburban, bedroom communities are now becoming the center of business activity."

He notes that the trend is particularly dramatic in areas such as Oakland County near Detroit and Clackamas County outside Portland, Ore. And in recent months and years, shortages in Maryland, Vermont, and New Jersey have resulted in districts calling in more temporary magistrates and - in at least one case - a year-long delay on a traffic ticket.

According to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., the number of state judges and quasi-judicial officers such as magistrates has actually risen slowly over the years. In 1991, there were 26,938. By 1998, the number had risen to 28,793.

The number of cases filed, though, has ballooned, with 31.8 million criminal and civil filings in 1991 and more than 91 million in 1998.

Here in Colorado, one of the fastest-growing states in the US, the stresses of more people and more lawsuits are evident. Although the civil cases usually go to trial within two years - on par with the rest of the nation, major delays have occurred.

"In some urban jurisdictions, attorneys now report that trial delays in commercial cases sometimes exceed five years or more," says the Governor's Task Force on Civil Justice Reform. "Without meaningful civil justice reform, Colorado's continued economic boom will be in jeopardy."

It's a situation that Colorado officials are familiar with. "I have heard anecdotally about cases taking five years," says Judge Anderson. "I'm certainly aware that these cases exist, or have existed."

Another consequence of the judge shortage has been an increase in the use of magistrates. It's a development that concerns some legal experts, considering that magistrates do not go through the same rigorous appointment procedures as judges - and are not subject to removal by voters. Magistrates, who are selected by chief district court judges, are less accountable, experts say.

In contrast to burgeoning states like Colorado, less-populous states are having far fewer problems. North Dakota even decreased its number of judges by 11 judges to a total of 42.

"There were a few too many at 53," says says Gerald VandeWalle, president of the Conference of Chief Justices and chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court. "But I'm not sure 42 is the right number. There's some tight spots that make me a little concerned."

Judge VandeWalle says the state's overall caseload has not grown, but it is shifting to the state's few urban areas.

Yet demographics don't account for all the changes in judges' workloads.

Cases are becoming more complicated and more people are representing themselves in court, slowing down the process. (In some Colorado jurisdictions, for example, at least one party appears without an attorney in up to 65 percent of domestic-relations cases.)

The Colorado governor's task force offered a number of solutions that have been tried and debated across the country.

One is the creation of a specialized business court with judges who are expert in handling commercial cases. Such cases are also among those that are becoming more complex, says Troy Eid, chief counsel to Gov. Bill Owens.

Another idea is to increase the number of centers that provide staff to help people who are representing themselves answer questions and fill out forms.

Money is the obstacle to these recommendations. Mr. Eid says funding the 25 new judges would cost $2.2 million for each of the first four to five start-up years. In subsequent years, the cost would be less.

Still, Eid is optimistic, given that the report says the system is "approaching crisis."

"You never know until it's over," he says. "But we'll make our case."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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