Study shows heavy workloads in Montana district courts

2012-12-08T22:00:00Z Study shows heavy workloads in Montana district courtsBy GWEN FLORIO of the Missoulian missoulian.com
December 08, 2012 10:00 pm  • 

Missoula County District Court Judge Ed McLean was having none of it recently when, in the midst of a court proceeding, an attorney requested extra time to consult with his client.

McLean reminded the attorney that the court was dealing with 85 matters that day. If everybody asked for more time, he wondered, where would that leave things?

Turns out, pretty much where they already are. Like nearly every other judge in Montana, McLean is overburdened.

An annual study shows that as of last year, the Fourth Judicial District that encompasses Missoula and Mineral counties could have used at least one more judge. (Actually, 1.47, according to the study by the state District Court Council, which develops policies and administers funding for state courts.)

Only two judicial districts, the 14th (Golden Valley, Meagher, Musselshell and Wheatland counties) and 15th (Daniels, Sheridan and Roosevelt) were ahead of the game, and then only by small fractions.

According to numbers tallied at the end of 2011, the greatest need was in the Lewis and Clark/Broadwater County District, which could use an extra 1.45 judges; Flathead County, 1.53; and Yellowstone, 1.77 – and each of those districts started the year with an additional judge approved by the 2009 Legislature.

(Lest the fractions sound unrealistic, court systems in the larger districts use standing masters – attorneys who function as acting judges in certain cases, and who count in the study as 0.75 of a judge.)

A judge’s workload can become so intense that Flathead County District Judge Kitty Curtis cites it as the reason she’ll retire at the end of the month.

“Some of the individual cases are stressful, but more than the nature of the work to me is the quantity of the work. You just never get to the point that you feel like you’re doing what you’d like to do with anything,” said Curtis, first elected in 1994. Her term on the District Court Council ended in June.

Some math: Judge McLean’s day in court starts at 8:30 a.m. Even figuring for an hourlong lunch break, that averages out to just more than 5 minutes per case if things wrap up by 5 p.m.

Some cases are just quick procedural matters and take even less than that. Some take much longer. The day McLean issued his tart reminder to the lawyer was heavier than normal because the judge had been on vacation the week before, and his cases had stacked up. But even a normal day can involve 60 cases, he said.

As bad as that sounds, the system is much improved, thanks to that same judicial workload study.

Montana’s study was first done in 2006, as part of a nationwide effort by the National Center for State Courts.

McLean, a member of the original District Court Council that was formed after the Legislature shifted court funding from the counties to the state, pushed hard for that study, said Beth McLaughlin, court services director.

Adding a judge “used to be a political process,” she said. “Now it’s based on numbers.”


The study also helped courts prioritize how cases are handled. Those involving child abuse and neglect have the highest priority. They’re also the most time-consuming, according to the study.

With public safety and defendants’ rights to a speedy process at issue, criminal cases also take priority, and they’re nearly as time-consuming for judges, more so still in Missoula County.

“We try probably more criminal trials in Missoula than anywhere else,” McLean said. “Billings has six judges, but trialwise, we’re neck and neck.”

That leaves civil cases at the end of the line. Curtis said some divorce cases involving property settlements can take as long as two years, during which time the property values could change drastically.

By the time one divorce case, involving two homes, was resolved 10 months later, both homes had been foreclosed upon, she said. “It’s like taking one step forward and two back. The facts aren’t even the facts anymore.”


Despite the demonstrated need, the District Court Council won’t ask the 2013 Legislature for any new judges, “even though we know the need exists,” McLaughlin said.

Each judge and accompanying staff including secretary, research assistant, law clerk and court reporter costs the state about $1 million. The counties are on the hook for staff such as the bailiff and court clerk, along with office space and courtroom availability for those people.

But the council will probably seek a new judge for Missoula and Mineral counties in 2015, McLean said.

Missoula County District Court Judge Dusty Deschamps takes the long view of the situation.

When Deschamps came to the county attorney’s office in 1970, three judges handled all the cases for Missoula, Ravalli, Mineral, Lake and Sanders counties.

Now eight judges cover those same counties, he said.

In the meantime, said Deschamps, a member of the District Court Council, judges around the state have become adept at juggling.

“It kind of drives me crazy when I hear people talk about courts being inefficient,” he said. “My impression is that judges across the state are working efficiently and expeditiously.”

Curtis said that Montana’s small population works to the judges’ benefits when it comes to gripes about the court system.

“People know that we’re working and know the reason we aren’t able to decide their cases as quickly as we would like is not because we’re at the golf course,” she said. “We’re able to be known in the community and have a certain amount of credibility as individuals.”

Curtis, once she retires, plans to keep a hand in, staying involved with the workload studies and examining strategies to improve case management.

That work, she said, “will tell a story that despite the fact that we have too high of a workload, the vast majority of the things we do are being done in a timely manner.”

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

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(6) Comments

  1. free no more
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    free no more - December 09, 2012 4:56 pm

    quit prosecuting victimless crimes(cannabis arrests) and Judges will have enough time.
  2. findsolutions
    Report Abuse
    findsolutions - December 09, 2012 12:56 pm
    Hello fellow com-mentor's,
    I think a bit more education will clear up this misunderstanding of the article.
    The court's have indeed increased in caseload. There are many reasons for this including the economy ( pay or I will see you in court), the entitlement generation (take what you want irregardless of who it belongs to), and the moral decline of our nation (divorce, lack of parenting, juvenile disregard, financial irresponsibility, criminal mischief, etc.).
    I did not see in the article that his Honorable was speaking only of criminal cases, but lets assume he was. Are you aware of the strict time frame requirements that the Courts must follow in order to not "violate the rights of the defendant"? These have to be adhered whether a murder case, a DUI case, or a criminal mischief case. The law has no deviance for those who obviously violated the rights of someone else. The Court's must protect the accused in all aspects. Therefore, excessive continuances by unprepared counsel or defendants who are stalling as to not face their consequences, crunches the Judges schedule, the Court facility availability, and the supporting staff's workload into a tiny window in which to carry out the process and their legal duties.
    Think of it this way: You have your day, week, or month planned. It's a tight schedule already and out of the blue, your in laws decide to come stay and want to be entertained. Or, another scenario, you are saving for something. Your motor blows in your car and you have to spend all of your available funds to fix it.
    This is very much like the Court's scheduling. There are so many types of cases, such a big increase in cases, and no extra people or space to accommodate those needs; so keeping a tight schedule is of the utmost importance. It also is a huge loss to the taxpayers when trials are continued and people have already arranged to be off work or cancelled trips. And also when supporting staff have worked night and day preparing (to allow the defendant to face his/her accuser and protect his/her civil rights), it changes their entire schedule and someone else's rights get pushed back.
  3. findsolutions
    Report Abuse
    findsolutions - December 09, 2012 12:39 pm
    Hello com mentors!
    There seem to be a few facts missing from your equations. Let's break this down a bit.
    Indeed, the courts workload has increased tremendously. This stems from the economy (pay or I will see you in court), the entitlement generation (take what you want whether it is yours or not), and the moral decline in our nation (lack of commitment, frivolous law suits, lack of parenting responsibility, etc).
    I did not see where his Honor said anything about all the cases being criminal. However, there are very strict guidelines that the Court must meet (speedy trial issues, etc.) or they will be liable for "violating the civil rights of the defendant", hence, the defendant goes free. And mind you, it does not matter whose civil rights the defendant violated that put him/her in front of his Honorable.
  4. zootown
    Report Abuse
    zootown - December 09, 2012 11:47 am
    Now that the prisons are becoming privately owned and promise to keep the inmate population up in the high 90%, the police need to arrest more people to keep them full
    and the judges have bigger caseloads to insure the quota's are filled. Solve that problem
    and you might solve the overload on the judges.
  5. live and let live
    Report Abuse
    live and let live - December 09, 2012 9:29 am
    Why such an increase in crime?
  6. farside
    Report Abuse
    farside - December 09, 2012 7:25 am
    Something tells me that I would never want to find myself in front of a judge HERE!! Really now, it comes to where an outcome which could be life changing has a speed clock attached to it? How about this: If everybody asked for more time, he wondered, where would that leave things? Judge I really would like you to think about what you just said,,, it reminds me when I was at a restaurant, took 15 minutes to get drinks, never got refills. Food was really late to the table and cold,,, and the waitress looks at us and said sorry, I am handling 12 tables!!! When it's all said and done, is that my problem that someone can't bring in the proper resources to deliver the proper level of service? Same goes for here, so judge,,,, your not helping the court situation here by speed judging. Nothing good EVER comes from this process and you end up paying dearly in the end. As much as I understand the point of this article tied to case loads, it unfortunately leads to a very poor picture of the legal process here.
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