Municipal Court seeking part-time judge to handle increasing caseload

It’s budget season in Great Falls and city officials have been working for months to develop the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

City staff met twice in June with the City Commission for budget discussions on the realities of available revenue and needs citywide.

On June 18, Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad joined the group to discuss his request for a part-time judge, part-time bailiff and full-time court clerk in what is the third busiest court of limited jurisdiction in the state, behind Billings and Missoula.

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The court handles misdemeanor citations within the city, ranging from parking violations to theft and assault.

Bolstad said a part-time judge would help move cases quicker and allow one of the judges to handle open court, freeing up time for trials.

The part-time judge would work about 16 hours weekly, have the same job qualifications as Bolstad, other than being elected, and would cost an estimated $46,375.

The full-time clerk would cost an estimated $60,797 and the part-time bailiff would cost an estimated $46,538, according to the municipal court staff, plus about $5,600 in one-time costs.

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Bostad said in 2016 the court handled 13,399 cases; in 2017 it was 13,378 cases and in 2018, it was 11,276 cases. Bolstad attributes the drop in cases with staffing shortages at the Great Falls Police Department. He said they do a great job, but with fewer cops on the street, they issue less citations.

So far this year, the court is up 300 cases over this time last year, Bolstad said.

Other courts of limited jurisdiction in the city and around the state have additional judges, part-time or full-time, and substitute judges, Bolstad said.

Cascade County Justice Court is also a court of limited jurisdiction and has two judges, both elected.

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The volume of cases impacts the trial schedule, which GFPD, jurors and witnesses have complained about.

Often times, GFPD officers get called in for trials at 10 in the morning, even if they worked the overnight shift, getting off around dawn.

Bolstad court staff has been working with GFPD in an attempt to work around their schedules, but it doesn’t always work out.

Bolstad again raised concerns about speedy trials during the June 18 meeting. He’s been raising that concern for several years, but knew the financial limitations of the city and didn’t ask for additional resources in recent budget years.

The city hasn’t lost a case for speedy trial yet, “but we are steadily creeping toward it,” he said.

Additional burdens are coming to the court now after a June 4 Montana Supreme Court ruling that will require courts of limited jurisdiction to hold jury trials even if the defendant doesn’t appear for trial in cases that carry a year or more penalty such as second and third DUI offenses or partner family member assault.

Previously, the court could waive a jury trial and have a bench trial if the defendant didn’t appear in those cases.

That’s going to add significant time to the process for those cases, Bolstad and City Attorney Sara Sexe said.

“This decision is going to crush courts of limited jurisdiction,” Bolstad said. “Many defendants do not show up.”

As as staffing a part-time bailiff, GFPD Chief Dave Bowen had some concerns about where that position would come from.

He said they’ve had staffing troubles and would be concerned about pulling an officer off the street for bailiff duties. GFPD experienced a high number of retirements and people leaving the department for various reasons, including the new sheriff and undersheriff, which caused a staffing shortage that the department expects to have overcome by early next year.

“With our current staffing, it would be a challenge,” Bowen said.

Commissioner Bill Bronson asked if the city could contract for security services, but City Attorney Sara Sexe said she believed it would need to be a sworn officer. She said she’d further research the question. It was also asked whether officers testifying in court could provide security while they’re there, but that also would need further research, staff said, based on labor agreements and other factors.

“It’s not ideal that you have one bailiff to cover this whole building,” Bolstad said.

There have been any number of issues in court, ranging from angry defendants to medical emergencies, Bolstad said, that bailiffs have handled in the courtroom, which is in the basement of the Civic Center.

City Manager Greg Doyon asked if they could partner with Cascade County Sheriff’s Office for a deputy to fill that role part-time. Bowen said the district court judges had been asking for more bailiffs and CCSO was also having trouble staffing those positions.

There are currently two bailiffs at the district courthouse and Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said he was converting bailiff positions that were in this year’s budget to deputy positions who would split time in the courthouse and on other duties.

Sexe said the city legal office understands the strain on municipal court but has some concerns about the potential for additional burden on prosecutors since they are also short on resources.

“They are willing to try it, but they are spread very thin,” she said.

The speedy trial issue is a concern for the legal department as well and the sheer volume of trials happening daily is “unbelievable,” she said, so being able to split that up would help staff.

Mayor Bob Kelly asked if there was any opportunity for revenue by adding another judge and moving cases more quickly.

“I don’t think that’s even a consideration…it’s just managing the oppressive workload,” Sexe said.

Some of the burden is coming from an increase in motions to suppress and dismiss from the public defenders. Bolstad and Sexe said it’s their job to defend their clients, but legal staff has to respond to that uptick of motions and the court staff has to process those motions and schedule hearings accordingly.

Bolstad said he believes the uptick in those kinds of motions is due to public defenders fearing the accusation of insufficient counsel.

During the last legislative session, there was some discussion of taking money from the entitlement funds to cities and funneling it to the public defenders office and also a proposal to require municipal courts to assign public defenders to all cases, even if there isn’t a risk of jail time. That would place even more burden on the system, local officials said, while also taking away the city’s resources.

Those discussions will be ongoing in the interim and will likely come back to the table in the next legislative session.

City Commissioners didn’t vocalize any direction to city staff on whether they wanted to include the part-time judge, bailiff and clerk in the budget, but indicated that staff should continue working out the details for further discussion at the next budget meeting.