By Michael Howell
Justice Court Judge Robin Clute told the County Commissioners that if they cut her staff by 33 and one third percent as they propose, “it is going to hamstring us.”
Each of the County’s Justices of the Peace has three employees: a Court Administrator/Ticket Case Manager, Civil Clerk/Criminal Case Manager, and a Clerk/Receptionist. The commissioners have proposed reducing the staff in Justice Court by eliminating the clerk/receptionist position in both Justice Courts, effectively eliminating two full-time positions.
Clute told the commissioners that in order for the courts to run expeditiously and efficiently they needed staff. She said that cutting her staff was going to affect the efficiency of the court. She said that her staff was always busy starting cases, monitoring cases, and dealing with the public in general.
Operating in a timely manner was essential for a court, she said. She said that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
She said that losing staff would lead to a drop in revenue. Clute said that this year she had 1,600 new cases and that cases must be monitored because there is no probation officer for Justice Court.
Clute told the commissioners that she could not function with just two employees.
“If somebody gets sick it reduces me to one employee,” she said. “You are basically shutting down the court.”
Justice Court Judge Jim Bailey put it more bluntly.
“You are in a lose/lose situation,” Bailey told the commissioners. “If you take the staff you lose $40,000 to $50,000 in revenue. But also, we will take you to court and you will lose. You can’t cut our staff, period.”
Bailey and Clute both sent the commissioners written notice of their opinion.
In his letter Bailey noted that it was the clerk/receptionist in his department who tracked payments owed the court and made the collection efforts. He estimated the loss in revenue to be between $40,000 and $50,000 if the position was terminated. In addition to that, the clerk/receptionist also does all the filing, prepares the daily court calendar, answers up to 30 phone calls a day, and responds to approximately 40 individuals who come to the counter for making fine payments, filing new civil complaints, restraining orders, and attorneys filing motions.
Bailey quotes Montana statute to the effect that the County “Shall provide for the justice’s court: (a) the office, courtroom, and clerical assistance necessary to enable the justice of the peace…to conduct business…”
“If you intend to reduce my personnel and, therefore, prevent my office from effectively conducting business, providing services, and staying current with its duties, I fully intend to take the matter to the District Court requesting a Writ of Mandamus to compel to follow the law and support my court,” wrote Bailey.
At the meeting, Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher tried to get Bailey to talk about the reason for two different departments and how there might be room for more efficiency in the work flow.
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore. You are crossing the executive line and trying to control justice,” said Bailey, and he left the room.
Clute stayed and calmly argued her position. She said that reducing her staff as proposed would place more work on already over-worked employees. She said burn out would be inevitable. She reminded the commissioners that her job involved matters of justice with very strict time frames. In some departments, she said, a missing signature was no big deal, but in her department it could mean taking away someone’s freedom. She said that without a third person her department could be broken.
Kanenwisher was insistent that there was a possibility for streamlining the departments by combining them into one department but maintaining two courts.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott stated that there was a legal process defined by case law if the Justices of the Peace wanted to use it. A District Court Judge will make a determination as to whether the positions are “necessary” or not. If necessary, then they must be funded. If they are not then the commissioners may cut them. Chilcott said it was a factual question that could not be answered at the meeting, but would require a determination in District Court.
Clute said she would not be sitting there that day if she thought it wasn’t necessary.