Why undo the Circuit Court’s achievements?
Less than one year ago, the court system proposed a dramatic restructuring of its trial courts, adopting a business model that we believed held the promise of increased efficiencies, cost savings and improved service to the residents of our state.The proposal for a new Circuit Court called for a structure that collapsed three trial courts into one, eliminated mid-level management positions by reducing the number of clerks and registers from 52 to 18 and implemented a centralized call center that has saved literally hundreds of hours for local court staffs around the state.Legislation creating the new Circuit Court was unanimously approved by the House and Senate Finance and Judiciary committees and, ultimately, the House and Senate.In quarterly reports filed with the Joint Fiscal Committee of the Legislature, we chronicled our progress, concluding with our report that the efficiencies and innovations the Legislature authorized had produced savings of $2.3 million in 10 short months of operation. We were justifiably proud of our hard work and pleased to hear legislative leaders laud our accomplishments as a model for all of state government.But instead of celebrating the remarkable achievements of this collaborative effort, in the 11th hour of this legislative session, House Judiciary Chairman Robert Rowe, R-Amherst, and Speaker William O’Brien introduced legislation that would strip the new Circuit Court of the very business model they and their colleagues just approved and applauded.Their publicly stated rationale was concerns raised by a few judges who were said to blame the Circuit Court for the loss of control over their staffs and a few prosecutors who claimed the Circuit Court resulted in judges no longer being assigned to the same court on a regular basis.These complaints, by the way, were never raised with anyone in court administration by either the legislators or the unnamed judges spoken of by Rowe and O’Brien.Last month, the full House agreed to this extraordinary about-face, dismantling the Circuit Court administration and sent the legislation to the Senate. We urged the members there to reject it. A House member claimed the legislation “improves the structure and workability” of the Circuit Court.Respectfully, he is wrong. Here’s why.For the record, judges have not had the authority to hire, discipline or fire staff for more than 20 years, the result of the Supreme Court’s recognition that personnel decisions require statewide consistency and expertise that is not possible when 30 or more judges are charged with that responsibility.As for the charge that judges are no longer assigned to a regular court, nothing could be further from the truth. In 27 out of the 32 Circuit Court locations, the same judge is assigned each day. The prosecutors who testified at the last-minute hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee only days before the end of the session practice in Rockingham County, a county that has four full-time judicial positions, three of which have been vacant due to retirement for several years and the fourth that is held by a judge who has been deployed to active military duty for two out of the last five years.Simply put, the shortage of judges in Rockingham County has nothing to do with how the Circuit Court is administered. Money to pay for judges is appropriated by the Legislature and appointments are made by the governor and Executive Council. Surely the complaining prosecutors understand that.What then can be the motivation for the high-level sponsorship of this legislation? And why was it brought literally at the end of the session with inadequate time or opportunity for it to be fully discussed by the public and court officials who, only months ago, were congratulated for our openness and cooperation with legislative leaders?Our mandate from the Legislature for the past year has been to bring the court system into the 21st century. Inexplicably, the House has suddenly turned its back on the progress we have made.Edwin W. Kelly is administrative judge of the Circuit Court.