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How will eight Yellowstone County district judges work in five courtrooms?

With a lot of careful planning and scheduling.

Now that two additional judges, Ashley Harada and Colette Davies, have taken office, the county is scrambling to finish additional offices and courtrooms. Estimates of when the construction and move-in will be complete varied from late January to early spring when The Gazette asked several county officials last week.

The temporary courtroom crunch isn’t the greatest challenge in Montana’s busiest state district court. Independent studies showed that Yellowstone County needed six more judges four years ago just to handle the workload then. The workload has since increased. In 2018, the court had 1,872 civil suits filed, 1,472 family law cases, 510 new child abuse or neglect cases, 1,580 felony criminal cases, 92 psychiatric commitments and 162 juvenile justice cases, according to Clerk of District Court Terry Halpin.

Yellowstone County officials have been anticipating the need for more District Court space even before the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock authorized the two new judges to take office in January 2019.

Last May, the Yellowstone County Commission and several other county offices relocated from the fourth floor of the Yellowstone County Courthouse to the Stillwater Building on the other side of Third Avenue North. After they moved out, contractors moved into the fourth floor to begin construction of courtrooms and judicial offices. While that construction continues, Davies and Harada have temporary offices on the third floor.

County Commission Chairman Denis Pitman said the judicial remodeling project is costing the county about $2 million, which includes some new air handlers and other building upgrades. Jan. 21 was the target for finishing construction, but some changes were ordered, so Pitman expects the finish will be later in January. After that, furniture, phones and computers have to be moved in and connected.

Having two more judges at work will require more clerks to be in courtrooms spread out on three courthouse floors. The commission approved two new deputy clerks. “That’s going to be sufficient,” Halpin said. “Our work has already lessened on the criminal side with e-filing.” So far, only criminal cases and other matters involving the County Attorney’s Office are being filed electronically, but the plan is to have e-filing for all matters.

Judge Greg Todd, the district’s chief judge, said he has been told to expect fourth-floor move-in in early February. “It might be the first of March or later before the dust settles,” he added.

Meanwhile, the judges’ offices are coordinating to make sure all court proceedings have space when needed. A meeting room on the first floor has been furnished with chairs, tables and microphones so that it can be used as a courtroom, although it couldn’t be used for a jury trial.

The fourth floor will have two full-size courtrooms to accommodate jury trials, and one smaller courtroom that judges plan to use for arraignments and other brief appearances of jail inmates, Todd said. That courtroom will have a secure holding area and access to a secure elevator. All eight judges will use that courtroom as they rotate the weekly duty of holding “law and motion” sessions.

In addition to the judges, this District Court has two standing masters — experienced attorneys who handle cases as assigned by district judges. They don’t conduct trials, but need meeting or hearing space for their work.

“The courtrooms will be used,” Todd said.

The judges, their assistants and law clerks are state employees. But the county is responsible for providing the space for them to work. This arrangement can present some challenges, but together, the state and county have taken a tremendous step toward improving access to District Court. Each of our Yellowstone County judges had been handling twice the workload of a full-time judge. Even with eight, the judges will have to work hard, but the increased staff should speed up justice in a court where civil suits sometimes waited more than a year for a trial date.

Two years ago, Gazette opinions urged the Legislature to approve more judges, arguing that justice delayed is justice denied. In 2019, that delay should be reduced. The people will benefit from more timely access to their courts.

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