State agencies worked hard to trim the fat in order to meet an average of 6-percent budget cuts the Wyoming Legislature put into effect this year. The Judicial Branch took a hit of 4-percent budget cut. Because the state revenue forecast is still cloudy, further cuts may be considered. As the state population grows, so does the need for the court system, which makes it next-to-impossible to cut back. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports.
REBECCA MARTINEZ: Judge Wesley Roberts returned to his office after a long-weekend to find a mountain of color-coded files sitting on his desk.
WESLEY ROBERTS: Most days I kind of force myself not to leave my court until everything is off of this desk. the things that the clerks need to process. Because if I don’t get these things done, they can’t move the cases forward on their desks. So, this is a pretty common occurrence.
MARTINEZ: The Riverton Circuit Court is enormously busy. It shares with a Circuit Court in Lander the workload of adjudicating Fremont County’s traffic violations, domestic disputes, and civil suits under 50-thousand dollars .. Riverton has the busier of the two dockets, and the number of cases on it is growing.
ROBERTS: Where we were 5700 for Fiscal Year 2011, Fiscal Year 2012 is probably in the neighborhood of pushing 8,000, high-sevens.
MARTINEZ: Unlike District Courts – which handle bigger, more serious cases – Circuit Courts are managed by the Wyoming Supreme Court staff. When the state legislature met this winter, lawmakers were talking about across-the-board budget cuts. Chief Justice Marilyn Kite assured them that the Judicial Branch understands the need for fiscal conservatism and has streamlined its operations, by digitizing records, allowing citations to be paid online, and limiting printing of law publications. Kite says the branch can’t afford to cut personnel.
KITE: There’s only so many working hours that a judge can operate and can respond to the filings in his court. So when we get behind, it really impacts the people more than it impacts the judges. And we can’t get our work done as quickly as we need to. And we have important matters and people need to get on with their lives.
MARTINEZ: The Supreme Court has some solid data to back-up claims that it’s working as efficiently as possible. Here’s deputy court administrator Ronda Munger.
RONDA MUNGER: We know that we are running a tight ship. We do not have excess employees anywhere.
MARTINEZ: Since the 1990s, the Wyoming Supreme Court has been conducting weighted workload studies. For two months, all the judges, court magistrates and court commissioners to keep track of everything they do, and how long it takes to do it – down to the minute. It standardizes the work a judge does, and shows the work distribution around the state. For example, the three circuit court judges in Natrona County, which is known as District 7, are doing the work of 3-point-6-1 judges… while two judges and two magistrates in District 8 handle the counties of Converse, Goshen, Niobrara and Platte. They share the work of 1-point-7-8 judges. Obviously that district spans several counties, so it can take more people to cover a smaller workload.
MUNGER: It’s a way for us to go with a definitive measure to the legislature. Instead of just saying we need more people, we need more people, this gives us hard data. And the legislature really relies on these studies.
MARTINEZ: According to the 2012 report, Judge Wesley Roberts at the Riverton Circuit Court is doing the work of 1-point-3 judges. By contrast, Lander Circuit Court Judge Robert Denhardt – who handles cases across an invisible jurisdictional line and in the Dubois satellite court – has a workload of point-7-5. Also, the Riverton Court was understaffed for a year in the number of clerks it needed to do its job.
The Wyoming Supreme Court has used past workload study data to move a vacant clerk position from Teton County to the Riverton office. Judge Denhardt now comes up from Lander to Riverton when needed to help with Judge Roberts caseload. Roberts says this is a good allocation of resources, but they still don’t have everything they need.
ROBERTS: Now we have to deal with the fact that we have limited courtroom space. You’ve seen our very tiny building with by far the busiest docket and safety and security concerns that we have to just live with on a daily basis.
MARTINEZ: Not only is the Riverton Circuit Court busy, but it also looks bad.
Counties are responsible to provide circuit court facilities, and Fremont County gave Riverton a small, pre-fab building with thin walls. Last summer, someone shot a bullet from outside into the courtroom. As a security measure, Riverton stationed large, metal industrial storage containers around the building, which hide it almost completely, but it’s an imperfect system. Fremont County Commissioners have requested funding for a new circuit court building from the State Land and Investments Board. They hope to have good news in June.
ROBERTS: It’s sort of a gray or a dark cloud over the whole process, because you know you’re working in a vulnerable, dangerous facility, every single day.
MARTINEZ: But Roberts is still worried about talk of further state budget cuts and the effects they’ll have on his office, which is now back to, what he says, is a manageable work load.
The Wyoming Supreme Court says there’s nothing left to cut in the Circuit Court system but personnel, which will keep courts from serving the public efficiently. Chief Justice Marilyn Kite argues that the Judicial Branch operates on 2-percent of the state budget… So if Wyoming’s looking for savings, she says, they won’t find them there.
For Wyoming Public Radio News, I’m Rebecca Martinez.