By Brooks Severson
In late 2010, the Kansas Supreme Court formed a Blue Ribbon Commission to evaluate and make recommendations regarding the operations of the Kansas court system. The Court appointed Court of Appeals Judge Patrick D. McAnany to chair the Commission and then proceeded to appoint 23 additional members of varied backgrounds from throughout the state.
The Commission spent a considerable amount of time analyzing and evaluating the state’s judicial system. They visited many jurisdictions and conducted public meetings to discuss the judiciary. One of the most important tools used was a Weighted Caseload Study conducted in August 2010. This study analyzed how long it takes for a case to proceed from start to finish as well as how much time is required of judges and clerical staff to manage cases. The study provided a comparison of the workloads of courts across Kansas.
After the Commission concluded its study, it prepared the Blue Ribbon Commission Report that was released to the public on January 19, 2012. The report consists of over 150 pages and can be viewed here. The report contains numerous suggestions and recommendations directed at improving the Kansas court system as well as decreasing judiciary expenses. This article will provide a brief summary of some of the Commission’s more notable suggestions pertaining to the judiciary system.
One of the Commission’s suggestions is that the Supreme Court eliminate the current statutory requirement of one resident judge per county as well as any other laws requiring placement of judges in specific districts. The Commission has recommended instead that the allocation of judges (location and number) be left to the Supreme Court to determine. The Commission explained that the statutes mandating the number of judges in each district or county leads to an imbalance in the court system because judges are not being placed in accordance with the actual needs of the area.
The Weighted Caseload Study showed that Kansas did not have an excess of judges, but that they were "misplaced" throughout the state. The study found that it would take 22 more judges to address the needs of areas with heavy caseloads, but the caseloads in other areas would appear to make 23 judges expendable. Of those 23 "extra" judges, 18 are mandated positions under the current Kansas laws. Allowing the Supreme Court to determine the location of judges, as well as the number needed per district to maintain the current caseload, would increase judicial efficiency. Responding to concerns that this reallocation would leave some areas under-served, the Commission explained that by eliminating the one judge per county requirement, the Supreme Court could assign judges to hear cases in multiple venues throughout any given week, depending on current caseloads.
The Commission did not recommend any modifications to the geographic configuration of the state’s judicial districts. In fact, the Commission specifically stated that the assumed benefits of consolidating courts, such as reduced administrative charges, would not offset the negative implications of consolidation.
The Commission also made several recommendations concerning magistrate judges. Magistrate judges have limited jurisdiction and, unlike a district court judge, there is no requirement that the individual be a licensed attorney. The Commission has recommended that this qualification requirement be changed so that magistrates must also have a law degree. The Commission has also recommended that all districts have magistrate judges and that they be routinely used for less complex matters such as protection from abuse proceedings, civil limited actions, child in need of care proceedings, minor probate matters and first appearance in criminal cases. Finally, the Commission recommended that the number of magistrate judges be increased while the total number of district judges be decreased. According to the Commission this recommendation would result in a savings of approximately $77,000 per position. Ultimately, the Commission found that increasing the number of magistrate judges, as well as expanding the the types of cases they could hear, would allow not only for significant costs savings but also greater flexibility in judicial assignments.
The Commission went on to make additional recommendations that would result in savings to the Kansas court system. Among those recommendations are requiring statewide electronic filing and centralized case and documents management systems; encouraging courts to use audio equipment to preserve a record; reducing and/or eventually phasing out court reporters in Kansas; and increasing docket filing fees.
It is expected that some of these issues will be considered in the current legislative session. Members of the public will want to keep abreast of these issues so that they can contact their local legislators and let their opinions be known.