Idaho lawmakers were challenged by Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick today to consider whether they want to continue the state’s policy of having at least one magistrate judge in each county that wants one, even as the population continues to concentrate in Ada, Canyon, Kootenai, Bonneville, Bannock and Twin Falls counties; the policy’s been in place since 1969.
“To match the resources to the caseloads, this necessarily translates into the court requiring a small number of magistrate judges to travel a great deal at a significant cost in both dollars and lost time,” Burdick told the House and Senate today in his annual “State of the Judiciary” address. “Some judges have spent more than 100 nights per year away from their home stations.”
In the 7th Judicial District, for example, Bonneville County has just 30 percent of the judges, but 70 percent of the caseload. “Traveling judges balance that caseload,” Burdick said.
He said the decision is up to the Legislature, whether to “either reaffirm this policy, which will require us to continue to ask for additional new judgeships and attendant travel costs, or to allow the court to reallocate some of those positions under very limited circumstances. We welcome a dialogue with you on this issue.”
Burdick also highlighted major changes under way in Idaho’s court system, from the rollout of the new iCourt technology system, now being phased in among Idaho counties; to a new administrative director, Sara Thomas, the former Idaho appellate public defender.
“Another major force in Idaho’s judiciary for 2016 was the continued work of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” he said. “As you recall, it was a significant overhauling of Idaho’s approach to dealing with criminal defendants and their cases. The root reasons for those changes still exist both nationally and in the state of Idaho. Therefore, we need to continue these reforms.”
That’s why the state Department of Correction is requesting 24 new probation officers for next year, Burdick said, as it tries to transition toward reserving cell space for the most dangerous offenders, and moving non-violent offenders into treatment and probation. “The Department of Correction has worked tirelessly to change and to hold that change up for the world to see,” Burdick said. “The important concept is reinvestment.”
Burdick also referred to the “silver tsunami” he warned of three years ago in his annual address, with Idaho’s aging population and a big increase in guardianship and conservatorship cases. “It is now apparent from 2,752 annual financial reports that approximately $316 million dollars are under the care of third parties,” Burdick said. That’s required stepped-up oversight “to make sure mismanagement is not taking place.”
And he noted that Idaho’s courts, which have heavily relied on fines and fees for funding, have seen a decline in civil filings. Idaho courts use just 1.3 percent of the state budget, he said; the national average is just under 3 percent. “At some point, a discussion on funding sources needs to be reviewed in light of the courts’ present-day mission and activities,” he said, to make sure the state has the “proper mix of funding for courts.”