HELENA - A proposal to add six new state district judges in five judicial districts attracted lots of support Monday, but its $1.9 million price tag drew the standard form letter from the Schweitzer administration opposing the bill as too expensive.
The hearing on Senate Bill 158, by Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, was before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"It seeks to add judicial resource to our currently overworked judicial system," Barkus said.
The bill reflects a need for more judges in the growing urban areas in the so-called "boot area" of the state, which runs from Flathead County to Yellowstone County.
New Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath called SB158 the judicial branch's No. 1 priority this legislative session.
District Judge Julie Macek of Great Falls emphasized how the additional judges will help citizens who turn to courts for help.
"People come to the courthouses in Montana when they are in crisis," she said. "We are the Red Cross of disasters in the judicial system.
"There is simply not enough time in the day to provide the citizens of this state with the quality and timely justice they deserve."
No one testified against the bill, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer's budget director, David Ewer, sent a form letter saying he opposes it because of the cost, not because of the idea. Ewer has been sending the letters to oppose almost any bill that spends money beyond the governor's proposed budget.
The call for more judges is based on an independent 2006 workload study of Montana district courts by the National Center on State Courts.
District judges were asked to account for how they spent their time on different kinds of cases in 15-minute increments for six months, and 75 percent of the judges participated. The center analyzed the results using the same methodology used in other states to come up with the "judicial resource needs" per district.
The recommendations are:
• Judicial District 1 (Lewis and Clark and Broadwater counties): One new judge to be appointed to take office January 2010 and run for a six-year term in November 2010. The district currently has three judges.
• Judicial District 8 (Cascade County/Great Falls): One new judge to be elected to a six-year term in 2010 and take office in January 2011. It now has four judges.
• Judicial District 11 (Flathead County/Kalispell): One new judge to be appointed to take office January 2010 and run for a six-year term in November 2010. At present, the district has three judges.
• Judicial District 13 (Yellowstone County/Billings): Two new judges to be elected to six-year terms in 2010 and take office in January 2011. It now has five judges.
• Judicial District 18 (Gallatin County/Bozeman): One new judge to be elected to a six-year term in 2010 and take office in January 2011. It now has three district judges.
The estimated cost of the bill includes the expenses of hiring additional law clerks, judicial assistants and court reporters in some cases, although it varies by district.
District Judge Kitty Curtis of Kalispell said the proposal calls for appointing two new judges in judicial districts 1 and 11, to get them ready to take office in January 2010 and then have the other four judges elected so they can take office in January 2011 in judicial districts 8, 13 and 18.
Judicial districts 1 and 11 each would also get a standing master, who's an attorney who can handle some matters such as arraignments and preliminary child support arrangements for a judge.
The committee didn't vote on the bill.