By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan is eliminating 36 trial court judgeships, a move that is expected to save the state around $6 million a year in judges’ salaries, an average $140,000 each.
“This is the largest cut in judgeships ever accomplished in the United States,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young. “It is unprecedented.”
That includes four Upper Peninsula positions.
“This right-sizing of our judiciary is the front edge of reforms we need to make for a more service-oriented and efficient court system,” Young said.
The cuts will be made through attrition over several years. As trial court judges retire, die or resign, their seats will no longer be filled.
Cutting judges has been a legislative priority since an August 2011 report by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) said that Michigan’s population decline and fewer cases meant many district, circuit and probate courts could operate with fewer judges.
The report recommended eliminating 45 trial court judges and four Court of Appeals seats.
Marcia McBrien, public information officer for the Supreme Court, blamed the excess of judges on legislation that added unnecessary positions while the state’s population declined.
“Since 1989, the Legislature has added 30 extra judges and hasn’t been willing to cut any,” McBrien said. “While there has been a significant drop in population and new case filings, we’ve seen more and more judges.”
According to the SCAO report, over the past 10 years, district court filings decreased by 15.5 percent. Circuit courts saw an 11 percent decrease in family division cases, an 8.6 percent decrease in civil cases and a 3.1 percent drop in criminal cases.
Kevin Oeffner, administrator for Oakland County Circuit Court and a member of the committee that made the SCAO recommendations, said eliminating judgeships saves money for counties as well.
“The state saves money when they no longer have to pay a judge’s salary,” Oeffner said, “but counties pay for things like benefits, staff and supplies.”
Oeffner said Oakland County’s request that a vacancy not be filled in 2010 saved around $400,000 per year.
“In Oakland, circuit judges usually have four employees working for them including clerks, a staff attorney and a secretary,” Oeffner said. “When Judge John McDonald retired, we were able to eliminate those positions and the savings were significant.”
McBrien said the savings to local governments could be reinvested in improving court technology and services.
“How many police could you hire with what counties save? What kind of court services could be improved?” McBrien said.
The report also noted the need for 31 more judgeships in some high need areas but didn’t recommend adding them because of local government’s concerns about taking on the financial burden.
“The money just isn’t there,” McBrien said. “Nothing is set in stone. Maybe in 2013 or 2015 we could look at adding judges in places of need but, right now, the economic situation isn’t right.”
While eliminating judgeships will save the state millions of dollars a year, some local judges argue the cuts aren’t justified.
Marquette County was slated to lose two of its five judges under the SCAO recommendations.
Marquette Probate Judge Michael Anderegg said the SCAO recommendations were based on faulty assumptions.
According to Anderegg, the report assumed that 56 percent of Marquette’s circuit and probate workload is handled by judges, while the remaining 44 percent is done by employees like magistrates and referees. Marquette, however, has no such employees.
“It defies common sense,” Anderegg said of the legislative action. “When you’re basing your recommendation on the amount of work, you should at least understand who is doing the work.”
The loss of two judges would force Marquette to hire a Family Court referee to handle divorce and child support cases at a cost of $114,000 per year.
Anderegg called the hundreds of thousands of dollars the SCAO report estimated the county would save a “fairy tale.”
“What this plan does is shift that burden from the state onto the county, and we don’t have the resources to provide what we are providing now,” Anderegg said.
Not only would the cuts cost Marquette more, they would also have a negative effect on court services, Anderegg said.
“All the time the state wants us to do more,” Anderegg said. “At the same time, they also want us to be more efficient. We can’t do both.”
To fight the proposal, Marquette’s judges and county commissioners created their own judicial reorganization plan and convinced the Legislature to eliminate one rather than two positions.
Rep. Steve Lindberg, D-Marquette, sponsored that amendment.
“Too often, we don’t ask the people who are affected what’s the best way to handle the situation,” Lindberg said. “We were able to come up with a bipartisan solution that makes the necessary cuts but also ensures our courts work properly.”
Anderegg said that while the loss of one judgeship will still hurt services, he is pleased with the compromise.
“When we were looking at losing 40 percent of our judges, the situation was catastrophic. Now that we’re losing 20 percent, it’s only going to be a mad scramble,” he said.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By JON GASKELL