MISSOULA — Missoula County District Court Judge Ed McLean was having none of it recently when, in the midst of a court proceeding, an attorney requested extra time to consult with his client.
McLean reminded the attorney that the court was dealing with 85 matters that day. If everybody asked for more time, he wondered, where would that leave things?
Turns out, pretty much where they already are. Like nearly every other judge in Montana, McLean is overburdened.
An annual study shows that as of last year, the Fourth Judicial District that encompasses Missoula and Mineral counties could have used at least one more judge. (Actually, 1.47, according to the study by the state District Court Council, which develops policies and administers funding for state courts.)
Only two judicial districts, the 14th (Golden Valley, Meagher, Musselshell and Wheatland counties) and 15th (Daniels, Sheridan and Roosevelt) were ahead of the game, and then only by small fractions.
According to numbers tallied at the end of 2011, the greatest need was in the Lewis and Clark/Broadwater County District, which could use an extra 1.45 judges; Flathead County, 1.53; and Yellowstone, 1.77 — and each of those districts started the year with an additional judge approved by the 2009 Legislature.
(Lest the fractions sound unrealistic, court systems in the larger districts use standing masters – attorneys who function as acting judges in certain cases, and who count in the study as 0.75 of a judge.)
A judge’s workload can become so intense that Flathead County District Judge Kitty Curtis cites it as the reason she’ll retire at the end of the month.
“Some of the individual cases are stressful, but more than the nature of the work to me is the quantity of the work. You just never get to the point that you feel like you’re doing what you’d like to do with anything,” said Curtis, first elected in 1994. Her term on the District Court Council ended in June.
Some math: Judge McLean’s day in court starts at 8:30 a.m. Even figuring for an hourlong lunch break, that averages out to just more than 5 minutes per case if things wrap up by 5 p.m.
Some cases are just quick procedural matters and take even less than that. Some take much longer. The day McLean issued his tart reminder to the lawyer was heavier than normal because the judge had been on vacation the week before, and his cases had stacked up. But even a normal day can involve 60 cases, he said.
As bad as that sounds, the system is much improved, thanks to that same judicial workload study.
Montana’s study was first done in 2006, as part of a nationwide effort by the National Center for State Courts.
McLean, a member of the original District Court Council that was formed after the Legislature shifted court funding from the counties to the state, pushed hard for that study, said Beth McLaughlin, court services director.
Adding a judge “used to be a political process,” she said. “Now it’s based on numbers.”
The study also helped courts prioritize how cases are handled. Those involving child abuse and neglect have the highest priority. They’re also the most time-consuming, according to the study.
With public safety and defendants’ rights to a speedy process at issue, criminal cases also take priority, and they’re nearly as time-consuming for judges, more so still in Missoula County.
“We try probably more criminal trials in Missoula than anywhere else,” McLean said. “Billings has six judges, but trialwise, we’re neck and neck.”
That leaves civil cases at the end of the line. Curtis said some divorce cases involving property settlements can take as long as two years, during which time the property values could change drastically.
By the time one divorce case, involving two homes, was resolved 10 months later, both homes had been foreclosed upon, she said. “It’s like taking one step forward and two back. The facts aren’t even the facts anymore.”
No 2013 request
Despite the demonstrated need, the District Court Council won’t ask the 2013 Legislature for any new judges, “even though we know the need exists,” McLaughlin said.
Each judge and accompanying staff including secretary, research assistant, law clerk and court reporter costs the state about $1 million. The counties are on the hook for staff such as the bailiff and court clerk, along with office space and courtroom availability for those people.
But the council will probably seek a new judge for Missoula and Mineral counties in 2015, McLean said.
Missoula County District Court Judge Dusty Deschamps takes the long view of the situation.
When Deschamps came to the county attorney’s office in 1970, three judges handled all the cases for Missoula, Ravalli, Mineral, Lake and Sanders counties.
Now eight judges cover those same counties, he said.
In the meantime, said Deschamps, a member of the District Court Council, judges around the state have become adept at juggling.
“It kind of drives me crazy when I hear people talk about courts being inefficient,” he said. “My impression is that judges across the state are working efficiently and expeditiously.”
Curtis said that Montana’s small population works to the judges’ benefits when it comes to gripes about the court system.
“People know that we’re working and know the reason we aren’t able to decide their cases as quickly as we would like is not because we’re at the golf course,” she said. “We’re able to be known in the community and have a certain amount of credibility as individuals.”
Curtis, once she retires, plans to keep a hand in, staying involved with the workload studies and examining strategies to improve case management.
That work, she said, “will tell a story that despite the fact that we have too high of a workload, the vast majority of the things we do are being done in a timely manner.”