Judiciary tech, and more

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From the annual state of the judiciary address (to the legislature) in Idaho delivered today, by Chief Justice Roger Burdick. Quite a few revealing items scatter through the address.

Our vision includes real-time data from every court in the state immediately available to every other court and to all individuals who require access to court information. This real-time data transfer allows enforcement of court orders for the protection of victims and communities. This capability will extend to every courthouse in Idaho. We are now working diligently on getting that infrastructure in place.

We also envision an expanded statewide telepresence for litigants, attorneys, judges and the public. Our magistrate and district judges travelled over 309,000 miles last year to preside over hearings in courthouses across the state. By the use of advanced technology, mileage costs and travel time will be significantly reduced and attendant cost savings to law enforcement will be realized. Just as private enterprise relies on telepresence to conduct business in the new economy, we will embrace this new technology and look for the efficiencies it will provide. As part of our technology analysis, we are examining how better to collect those fines, fees and other obligations on a coordinated statewide basis. We know there will be significant efficiencies achieved if that can be done.

Our technology plans were started by an in-depth analysis and assessment of our existing systems by three of the nation’s foremost experts on court technology. That assessment is available on our website for all of you to examine and read. Following that assessment, a committee was formed to chart dynamic and broad policy decisions for the coming years concerning our use of technology for Idaho’s citizens. When I use the word “dynamic,” it is
actually an understatement. In the thirty-one years that I have been a judge in the Idaho court system, I can’t remember a time when the Idaho courts have been as responsive to our citizens’ needs and accountable for our performance. Efforts are underway which will affect Idaho’s judiciary for decades. We anticipate coming to you next session with a more complete analysis of revenue options as our plans evolve for the electronic filing of all court papers. As we move to “paperless courthouses,” we anticipate some of these improvements can be funded by court users, and significant savings realized by counties and courts.

As I reported last year, we have continued with our recruitment efforts to make sure that we are attracting the most qualified judges available. We now hold open discussion groups in those counties where district judges are being replaced concerning the benefits of starting a career in the judiciary and to answer any and all questions concerning that career and application process. During judicial council interviews, we have heard numerous times from applicants who were encouraged by this opportunity to step forward and consider applying for a district judge position.

Despite these and other efforts we have a significant problem in recruiting district judges. The Judicial Council can rarely send a full slate of four names to the governor for appointment. In our surveys, and interviews with bar members and judges, it has become apparent that the district judgeship is no longer a highly sought-after judicial position. The reasons are many – the overwhelming workload that many district judges face in terms of numbers, as well as complexity; the prospect of contested election; as well as the inadequate compensation of that position.

You might ask why are potential applicants so concerned with the prospect of contested elections? The Legislature has wisely placed practice and age requirements on judicial candidates and applicants. The chosen attorney has built a clientele and other professional relationships that must be completely terminated to take a judicial position. If the judge loses a contested election, those clients are gone. The judge must start from scratch, replicating that prior book of business. When you factor in the ethical constraints on a judge’s conduct, fund raising, and time away from a full judicial caseload to run an election, you begin to understand the high stakes to a potential applicant and his or her family.

While we have a judiciary that is nationally recognized for its commitment to excellence, performance, and accountability, Idaho ranks 46th in compensation for its general jurisdiction judges. We have recognized for many years there is a need to improve the salary of district judges so we can attract highly qualified private attorneys to that position. We can do better. We will be presenting a comprehensive analysis this session of the need to recruit the most qualified district judges.

I reported last year that we were re-energizing our guardianship and conservatorship work in reaction to the “graying” of America. Did you know the numbers of Idahoans sixty and older grew by 44% – from 2000 to 2010? From 2010 to 2030 it is estimated to increase by 65%. There are now over 6200 active guardianship and conservatorship cases in Idaho, with over 300 million dollars in assets monitored last year by court personnel. This will only increase. I am pleased to report that the guardianship and conservatorship committee headed by Judge Chris Bieter of Ada County has made significant progress. Idaho courts were singled out as a voting delegate to attend the 3rd National Guardianship Summit. We have fixed our vision for Idaho on evidence-based solutions. We look forward to our work with the legislative and executive branches to re-examine all statutes and court rules to make sure that Idaho meets its responsibilities to its oftentimes most vulnerable citizens.

We are also requesting the legislature repeal the sunset provision of House Bill 687, which added an emergency surcharge to felony, misdemeanor and traffic infraction cases. The general fund will not permit you to fill a funding gap over 4 million dollars if the surcharge sunsets. Since you enacted it in 2010, the emergency surcharge has kept the courthouse doors open in each of your counties and provided for such beneficial programs as drug courts, mental health court, and family courts. The repeal of the sunset provision is vital to the judiciary’s constitutional role to solve people’s disputes and keep our communities safe.

Even with the surcharge, the Court was unable to fill four magistrate judge positions. We have now been able to fill two of those positions. We wish to thank the county officials for their patience and ability to manage with senior retired judges until we could refill those positions. We plan to fill the two remaining vacancies in September, 2013 and early 2014. Numerous court employee positions, however, remain vacant statewide and significant reductions have been made in all court operations.

It is bedrock function of government to properly fund a justice system. A justice system largely based upon user fees cannot continue to provide the requisite funds to protect our communities nor timely resolve our complex civil disputes. At some point the debt load of offenders will not be able to fund that justice system or the attendant agencies that rely on these fees for revenue. This is a recognition which is being debated in statehouses throughout the nation and an area we, as a state need to monitor.

The word “court costs” quite frankly is misleading. Did you know 152 cities share $6.9 million in “court costs” yearly? The 44 counties disburse $16.3 million in 23 different ways. State entities receive a total of $26.3 million; the general fund, $5 million; and other state entities $21.3 million. These are in addition to restitution to victims. This basket is about full and Idaho must proceed carefully when adding to the court cost or fee basket. We hope that a statewide analysis through the Criminal Justice Commission will help you in this regard.

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