The Waiting Game
A district judge in Arapahoe County who can't keep up with cases has resorted to paying his grown kids out of his own pocket to do legal research. A Douglas County judge is so far behind that he had to take three boxes of court files with him on a vacation to the Bahamas. Another district judge recruits her husband to help out on nights and weekends.
The culprits: A state court budget slashed by another $12.7 million this year and a judicial district that includes two of the fastest-growing counties in the state.
The victims: Kids who were taken away from their schizophrenic mother and must live with family friends until their dad can obtain a court order to take them home to Florida -- something that won't happen until at least August. A woman who can't buy a house because her divorce -- along with all of her marital assets -- has been in courtroom limbo since December. The rare couple who agreed on everything in their divorce but can't find a judge with enough free time to sign the decree.
Since the state legislature trimmed the judicial branch budget by $9 million last summer and the Colorado Supreme Court imposed a hiring freeze and furlough days in September, not one of the state's 22 judicial districts hasn't felt the pinch. It's the worst budget crisis in the history of the state court system -- even the oil bust of the 1980s wasn't as bad. But so far, the 18th Judicial District, which covers Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, has been hardest hit. As Douglas County became the most rapidly growing county in the nation -- for several years running -- court cases increased accordingly: Between 2001 and 2002, county court filings in the 18th district went up 13.7 percent and district court filings rose 9.1 percent. But the number of judges has not increased.
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Nor has the number of administrators. Instead, last year the burgeoning district had an especially high number of staffers who either went on maternity leave, left because their spouses had to relocate or took higher paying jobs in private industry -- and their positions couldn't be filled because of the freeze. "We've had more vacancies for a longer period of time than a lot of other districts," says chief judge John Leopold. "We really got hammered."
Since last summer, eighteen positions have gone unfilled in the district, but to those involved it feels more like forty. Judicial districts are supposed to have a certain number of employees for a particular case load, according to a Colorado Supreme Court staffing model, but the 18th isn't anywhere near its recommended allowance. "The model is one court reporter and one law clerk or assistant division clerk for every two judges, and we don't have that," Leopold says. "One judge started in February and still has no law clerk." Many courtrooms now rely on tape recorders to do the work of a court reporter. The district was supposed to get two new judges to handle the swelling docket, but the budget won't allow it.
Attorney Joyce Seelen is feeling the effects of the shortage. "I represent a little girl -- well, she isn't a little girl anymore; she was ten when we filed and she's sixteen now -- in a malpractice case against a hospital. Our courtroom was without a judge for a month, so nothing got ruled on. When the judge finally came in, he was overwhelmed with extensive motions," she says. "We were set to go to trial this June. Now it's been postponed until June 2004."
Trying to find creative ways to stay afloat, the clerk's office is now closed for more than an hour each day, many judges and magistrates work seven days a week, and employees' family members and friends come in regularly to help stem the tide of paperwork. "We're losing our district administrator at the end of May, because he got a wonderful promotion to become the clerk of U.S. District Court," Leopold says. "We'll have to hold that position open until the end of the year for vacancy savings, so now I'll be a full-time chief judge, a part-time trial judge and a part-time administrator."
Last fall, members of the Colorado Bar Association formed a committee in response to the judicial branch cuts, and they have been trying to lend a hand in the 18th. Twenty attorneys volunteer to help people file cases at Arapahoe County's pro se clinic each Friday, and some have signed up to act as "special masters" for when both parties agree to have a lawyer preside over their case rather than wait for a judge to become available. "I've talked to seniors at Arapahoe High School about volunteering to do paperwork there, but there haven't been any takers yet," says Geoff Parker, a committee member and family law attorney.
Despite the help, the backlog continues to grow. "We can't continue to provide the same level of service that we have in the past," Leopold says. "We'll end up having to prioritize, with felonies, cases involving children and certain probate cases, like care of the elderly, taking precedent. Civil cases may end up taking the brunt of this problem."
Pretty soon, other districts will face the same tough choices. When the new fiscal year begins in July, judicial districts across Colorado will have only enough money to staff their offices at 83 percent of the normal level. For those, such as the 18th, already operating with a skeleton crew, it will be business as usual. But districts that haven't experienced much staff turnover in the last year will have to lay off workers. It will be the lowest staffing level in Colorado courts since 1996, when there were approximately 40,000 fewer cases than there are now.
"I see it as only getting worse," Parker predicts.