Juvenile judges stretched thin in Utah courts
Vernal • The sun has barely risen when Larry A. Steele hears his first case.
By noon on this January day, the 8th Judicial District juvenile court judge has seen a stream of delinquent youths. By 4:10 p.m., he has presided over a procession of child-protection and custody cases, including a shelter hearing for an infant who tested positive for marijuana at birth.
But it's actually a light day for the only juvenile court judge in the state's 8th District, which includes Duchesne, Uintah and Daggett counties.
On a heavy day, Steele sees about 30 families. There have been days when he has held court until 10 p.m. The lobby outside his courtroom is often filled with annoyed, restless people who have waited up to three hours to appear.
"It's embarrassing to me," Steele said. "In my evaluations, I'm constantly criticized that [I don't] get people in and out. I can't."
Steele's caseload is 194 percent of what it should be, meaning he's essentially doing the job of two judges. The two adult court judges in the 8th District also are overloaded they're doing the job of three.
"I don't know how [Steele] does it. It's clearly more than one person should be handling," said Michael Drechsel, Uintah County chief deputy county attorney. "Not only because of the way his workload is, but the kids in our community deserve the time with the judge to understand what the issue is â¦ rather than being processed [through] like a piece of meat. The caseloads never should have been this high for a judge."
While court case numbers overall have been declining statewide, the 8th Judicial District has bucked that trend, registering a more than 20 percent jump from 2008 to 2012 and overloading every existing court.
"I feel overloaded now and I've got two judges helping me," said Steele, who has been the juvenile court judge since 1996.
For the past four years, cash-strapped state leaders have resorted to the temporary solution of bringing in retired justices or judges from the nearby 7th Judicial District who are not accountable to voters in the 8th District to help share the load.
"We all view it as a band-aid," said Judge Clark McClellan of the 8th District adult court. "They have made it so we can function."
But patience with that temporary solution is wearing thin. Residents want legislators to protect their right to speedy court proceedings and ensure they get to vote on whether judges serving their area should remain on the bench. Such retention elections are guaranteed by Utah law.
State Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, whose area includes the three counties in the 8th District, has proposed a permanent fix with two bills now working their way through the Utah Legislature.
If both become law, there will be two juvenile courts and three adult courts operating in the 8th District beginning in fiscal year 2014. The bills also would add two new clerks for each newly created court.
The price tag per bill: $353,300.
Booming and busting • Residents of the Uinta Basin, where the economy is fueled by oil and gas development, have come to expect population flux.
But, in the past decade, many people apparently decided to make the Basin their permanent home in good times and bad: During that time, the population in Daggett, Uintah, and Duchesne counties has shot up by 29 percent, according to U.S. census figures.
"The Basin has had a huge, sustained increase in population," said Dan Becker, state court administrator. "And that's being reflected in the workload of the court."
He said the juvenile court workload has risen by 22 percent since 2008, while the adult court has seen an increase of 28 percent.
"We've had a need out in the Basin for quite some time," Becker said. "They've had a demonstrated need for five years."
But the recession made adding new judges a difficult sell.
"This need was apparent at the start of the recession," Becker said. "But we also knew the Legislature wasn't going to be able to fund judges during the recession."
As judicial leaders waited for the economy to pick up, the caseload increases began taking a toll.
"We're having scheduling issues," Van Tassell said. "People are entitled to have as quick a resolution as possible to their cases."
Matthew Harrington, chief Vernal city prosecutor and vice president of Uintah Basin Bar Association, said there's no question additional courts are needed: There are more cases, and judges have to spend substantially more time preparing for those cases.
"Our judges are doing a great job juggling what they have," he said. "But they've got a caseload bursting at the seams. We're really at a critical point, even a breaking point. Every attorney that I know has expressed that opinion."
Harrington said the overloaded courts could expose the state to a legal challenge if residents' retention election rights are being violated.
"That would be litigation the state would want to avoid," he said.
The issue was highlighted by Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant in his 2013 State of the Judiciary speech. He noted that while court administrators have done what's needed to avoid asking lawmakers for help during the recession, residents in the 8th Judicial District "are entitled to more than a fill-in patchwork of judges."
In Duchesne County, residents are feeling the brunt. In Duchesne City, judges from outlying districts are now handling all the adult cases.
"The biggest concern we have from our constituents, and I have personally, is we have judges that have no representation," said Duchesne County Commissioner Kirk Wood, who notes that he hasn't heard any negative comments about the outside judges. "We don't have the opportunity to elect them because they're from out of our area. That has been a concern for people if something should go wrong."
Becker said bringing in outside judges has prevented backlogs. But it's a stopgap.
"They don't regard it as a permanent solution and neither do we," he said. "We view it as a temporary solution."
He said residents' concerns about retention election issues are "legitimate," but he's hopeful the Legislature will address them by adding the needed courts.
Judge or no judge? • The caseload increase has been so dramatic in Duchesne County that its justice center must be expanded to add courtrooms and office space. The expansion project, slated to start this year, is expected to cost up to $3 million, Wood said. He hopes the state will help cover some of the project's costs.
"Hopefully we can get that expansion in," he said, "and get more judges in that are answerable to [our] public."
The plan is for both new judges to be based in Duchesne County to serve residents there. (The three current 8th District judges are based in Vernal and travel across the district.) Judge McClellan said about a third of adult cases come out of Duchesne County. The current judges will continue to hear Uintah County's cases and the ones in Daggett.
"That actually gives us more time," Steele said, "[to hear cases] because it reduces the travel."
Steele said the hope is that all litigants will have one judge throughout their cases, which is particularly important in juvenile court so the judge can get to know the family and issues well.
"[Right now] you've got three different personalities, so it's not as effective" he said. "[You're potentially] coming in brand new."
Van Tassell said he's optimistic that both bills will pass. He noted that feedback has been positive. Both measures cleared the Utah Senate and received a favorable recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee. But they stalled in the House because of their cost.
"I'm positive we'll get one [new judge]," Van Tassell said. "I think we have a very good chance of getting two. [If we don't get them], it means more of the same. And if that happens, then we'll do [the bills] again next year."
Tony Semerad contributed to this report.