Opinion: Large workload forcing change to court system

2002-01-05T23:00:00Z Opinion: Large workload forcing change to court system The Billings Gazette
January 05, 2002 11:00 pm

Gazette Editorial

The heavy demands placed on Montana’s sole appellate court are growing and can be ignored only at the expense of justice.

A year ago, as the 2001 Legislature convened, justices from the seven-member Montana Supreme Court were campaigning for a new intermediate appellate court that was to take some types of appeals and speed up resolution of cases. The time lag for resolving appeals to the Supreme Court typical ran up to 18 months.

Money was tight in the state budget. The proposal died in legislative committee.Bustling courtroomA year later, the Supreme Court is busier than ever. It ended 2001 with a record number of filings – 909. The year 2000 had been the previous record with 868 cases filed, a 20 percent increase over 1999.

Court

Supreme Statistics Total cases filed in 2001 – 909

569 were direct appeals.

340 were original filings, mostly petitions from prisoners.Source: Supreme Court Clerk

Clerk Ed Smith said the clerk’s office and the court lack money for computerization that would improve the flow of work.

“We don’t have the technology we need at the Supreme Court,” Smith said. “It’s really a horse and buggy operation up here.”

Cases filed are a substantial part of the court’s work, but the justices have other duties, too. The Supreme Court has responsibilities for regulating the state bar, supervising court administration and, this year, the justices are implementing a new law that calls for the state to assume all funding for district courts. The Supreme Court must develop personnel classifications for all the county employees who will become state employees on July 1. Chief Justice Karla Gray chairs a new district court council that must establish policies and procedures for the changeover. Those policies must then be approved by the Supreme Court.

In January 2001, the Supreme Court carried over 577 cases, a record number. Gray didn’t know last week what the 2002 carryover number is, but the backlog is a concern.No time to fightLooking ahead to the 2003 Legislature, Gray said the court doesn’t plan to renew its plea for an intermediate appeals court.

“The need obviously hasn’t changed,” Gray said. “The court has decided, at least at this point, not to pursue an intermediate appellate court in the 2003 session.”

Why? Basically, because the seven justices are so busy that they don’t have time to mount another campaign to promote the legislation.

“That’s the bottom line,” Gray said. “I wish it were otherwise.”

Most Montanans won’t ever have direct contact with our state’s highest court. Yet the court’s decisions affect all of us.

As Gray said, “We have to do a better job of helping the public understand this court and what it does.” As we understand more about the operations of the appellate court, the evidence of need for change increases.

We call on the governor’s office and legislative leaders to work with the Supreme Court in the coming year to address the court’s workload – before there is a serious breakdown.

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