Trial judge laments effects of budget-cutting on court services

Annual Bench-Bar Conference offers food for thought

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

We're in a period of economic duress that has hit Washtenaw County in a way probably never seen before, Judge Donald E. Shelton told the 120 law professionals attending the Judiciary Committee of the Washtenaw County Bar Association's 23rd Annual Bench-Bar Conference May 11.

The county, which is the funding unit of the courts, has decreased the court's budget by 14 percent in the past four years.

"What that means for us in the court is personnel," said Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court. "We've had a 20 percent reduction in personnel at the courts. These are the people who work in the clerk's office who have to process the work; who people rely on to get the matters before the judge or even to get their papers signed."

The number of court personnel has decreased from 158 in 2009 to 126 today.

At the same time, Shelton said, the state has adopted an anti-government position that believes some of the fault lies with lazy government employees.

"So they've put tremendous pressure on local governments, the most obvious being the reduction of health care for local employees," said Shelton, speaking to The Washtenaw County Legal News after the conference. "What that meant for us is a tremendous amount of turnover. Eighty percent of the employees in the clerk's office have had their jobs turn over since last September. Four out of the five people trying to provide services to folks are brand new, and we're training all of them."

Meanwhile, he said, the county is requiring employees to take 10 furlough days this year.?

"Unlike when I was in the Army, furlough doesn't mean you get a day off with pay," he said. "Furlough means you must take the day off and you will not get paid for it. In effect, the court is closed for two weeks out of every year."

Most furlough days coincide with other holidays. They are: Jan. 12, Feb. 17, May 25, Aug. 31, Oct. 5, Dec. 26, 27, and 28, and two days of employee's choice.

What that means for citizens is that there are no court services available on those days.

"If you need a PPO, if you have a child custody problem during that period of time, if courts are closed," he said. "If we're going to approach this issue by saying we're going to cut government services and make government do more with less, it's simply not going to work. The court can't do in 50 weeks what it took 52 weeks to do. We can't do with 80 percent of the people what we did with 100 percent of the people. So smaller government means the courts are closed, and it either means slower service or no service at all."

Shelton said a problem the judiciary system always faces is that nobody needs it--until they do.

"There's no constituency for the legal system because it doesn't impact people's lives until it does," he said. "And then they find out. I had one person say to me, `Well, I'm all in favor of smaller government. But I didn't mean the courts!' Often when people talk about shrinking government, it's about shrinking benefits that the other people get."

He said he got a good laugh at a sign he read at a rally: "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare."

"It really is the courts that provide the basis for equity and justice and a place for people to go when they're in dire straits," said Shelton. "To the extent we say government shouldn't be here to do that, we're saying there's no equity, there's no justice available to you. Or if it is available, it may be too slow to help."

Also speaking about the Washtenaw County courts were judges Elizabeth P. Hines, Richard E. Conlin, and Charles J. Pope.

The conference, which was held at the Travis Pointe Country Club, closed with a panel discussion about judicial foreclosures. Panelists included judges Douglas Shapiro, Archie Brown, and J. Cedric Simpson; Washtenaw County Treasurer Catherine McClary; Paul Sher of Legal Services of South Central Michigan; and Matt Theunick of Trott & Trott.

The 2012 conference sponsors include Berry Moorman, P.C.; Bodman PLC; Conlin, McKenney & Philbrick, P.C.; Dykema; Fink & Valvo, PLLC; Garris, Garris, Garris & Garris, P.C.; Hooper Hathawy, P.C.; Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, P.C.; Law Offices of Weipert-Winter; McLain & Winters; Miller Canfield; Andrew S. Muth, P.C.; Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendlebach & Buiteweg, P.C.; Pear Sperling Eggan & Daniels, P.C.; Washtenaw County Public Defender Lloyd E. Powell; Joseph H. Spiegel, P.C.; Thomas M. Cooley Law School - Ann Arbor Campus; The Washtenaw County Legal News; and Erane Washington-Kendrick, PLLC.

Published: Thu, May 17, 2012