Idaho’s magistrate judges are currently on the road so much that some are sitting outside their home county four days a week, state courts Administrative Director Sara Thomas told legislative budget writers today, and some are traveling up to 20,000 miles a year. That’s because every county that chooses to have a magistrate judge has one – even if caseloads in the county don’t warrant it. But then they have to travel to where the cases are.
“The result has become a very costly system,” Thomas told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “In addition to the cost of travel, the judiciary is losing the time – work time is being transferred into windshield time. And I have to say that the human cost of spending 80 percent of your work week away from home can’t be forgotten.”
As a result, the courts are proposing two alternatives to lawmakers this year: Fund an additional magistrate judge in Bonneville County, where another is needed; or lift the requirement for one in every county and let the courts “move magistrates, when there are vacancies, to the places where we need them.” Only counties with less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the statewide population would forego having a resident magistrate, under the proposal, which Thomas said will be presented to the House and Senate judiciary committees for their consideration.
“It’s our hope that by providing the Legislature with both options, you will give guidance on what you prefer the policy of the state of Idaho to be,” she said.
The Judicial Branch of Idaho’s state government has significant budget requests this year. All were included in Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget for next year, as required by law; the governor makes no recommendation for budgets for other branches of government outside the executive, which he oversees.
Atop the court’s list of requests is $3.7 million for the next phase – phase 4 of 5 – of the implementation of the new court technology program, which is shifting Idaho to online court records statewide. Civil filing fees that were supposed to fund a portion of the new system have been coming in below projections due to a drop in civil case filings, so the amount has increased.
When JFAC members questioned why filings are dropping, Thomas said it’s happening nationally. “It can be associated with things like mandatory arbitration clauses that prevent people from getting into the court system,” she said. “It can also be increases in filing fees themselves, making it cost-prohibitive.” Idaho’s Supreme Court has set up a Civil Justice Reform Task Force to look at ways to decrease the cost of civil litigation, in the interest of maintaining access to the courts for the public, she said.
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said he was concerned about fees being difficult to collect. Thomas said while that can be an issue with criminal fines, that’s not generally the issue with civil filings, which are directly tied to the number of cases filed.
Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said she’s concerned that fees are being waived in some rural counties, and asked for a full report.
Other major budget proposals for the courts for the coming year include $488,900 to expand a pilot program in two judicial districts that has proven effective at monitoring guardianship and conservatorship programs for vulnerable people, including following up on indications of potential abuse or exploitation. “What we’re asking is that this project that has been very successful … be expanded,” Thomas said. “That’s why we’re asking for five new positions – to cover the other five judicial districts that don’t currently have a monitor.”
Overall, the proposed budget for court operations for next year reflects a 7.2 percent increase, including increasing personnel costs for 3 percent merit raises for staff.