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The Associated Press

HELENA (AP) — A sharp division has emerged among Montana Supreme Court justices over their decision to permanently limit the number of new cases the court will consider each week.

Justice Terry Trieweiler, the lone objector, ridiculed Wednesday’s action as “nothing short of a work stoppage.”

“It is a simple refusal of this court to decide appeals as they arrive,” he said in a written dissent. “It is an historic first and unworthy of a court of this caliber. Work stoppages are for labor unions, not supreme courts.”

Three justices fired back, calling Trieweiler’s comments ridiculous, demeaning and absurd.

“Attempting to intelligently manage a crushing workload, which increases every year, in order to maintain the quality of the court’s work product should be commended, not condemned,” wrote justices James Nelson, Bill Leaphart and Chief Justice Karla Gray.

Justices Jim Regnier, Patricia Cotter and Jim Rice did not weigh in with written comments.

The unusually blunt exchange was prompted by the court’s order that continues indefinitely emergency restrictions on appeals that were imposed a year ago in an attempt to cope with a ballooning caseload.

The court said it was concerned a growing backlog of cases was jeopardizing citizens’ constitutional rights to speedy, efficient justice.

The new rules temporarily limited the length of legal briefs filed in appeals and the ability of lawyers to get extra time to file documents. It also capped at seven the number of new cases the clerk could send to the court every week.

Wednesday’s order said the court concluded the restrictions should be permanent because they have helped with the workload problem and caused no hardship for those involved in appeals.

Trieweiler lambasted the idea of a weekly limit as “peevish and misguided.” The move will create a growing logjam as the number of filings increase, but the cases are not allowed to flow freely to the court for consideration, he said.

“The court is at full strength,” he said. “The average age is 20 years younger than when I joined the court in 1990, and there is no reason that this court cannot handle more than seven cases a week.”

Trieweiler accused the majority of wanting to build a backlog of cases as a ploy to pressure the next Legislature to approve the court’s long-standing request to create an intermediate appeals court.

Nelson, joined by Leaphart and Gray, said the weekly limit is necessary to ensure the justices have time to read the briefs thoroughly so they can make informed and intelligent decisions. Without the restriction, the court would receive as many as 15 cases each week, they said.

With the court taking six months to prepare opinions in cases, sending more to the court weekly will not speed up that process and leaving more in the clerk’s office will not slow it down, Nelson said.

He said the court is “attempting to responsibly manage a staggering amount of work, knowing full well that our situation is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.”

Leaphart took offense at what he considered Trieweiler’s suggestion that the court was filled with “conniving laggards.”

The justices work hard to keep up with the reading demands, but some control on cases is needed, he said.

“The more time we have to work on a case, the better job we do,” Leaphart said. “In the absence of some effort to manage our workload and budget our time, we will reduced to black-robed automatons mechanically issuing one-line rulings …. The public deserves better from its highest court.”

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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