One court's loss may be another's gain under SCAO recommendations

By John Minnis

Legal News

Wayne County will likely lose two circuit court judges and Macomb County will gain two under a statewide restructuring plan should new Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. succeed in getting the Legislature to join him in reducing judicial costs, which he has vowed to do.

As head of the Republican majority court, Young is serious about cutting costs, but he cannot do it alone. Changes in judgeships require a vote of the Legislature.

Young said he believes the Legislature will look seriously at cutting costs in light of the state's fiscal crisis.

"For years, the State Court Administrative Office has been recommending reductions in judgeships for trial courts where the workload simply does not justify the number of judges," he said. "Those recommendations have fallen on deaf ears, as has the proposal to have 24 instead of 28 Court of Appeals judges, based on the fact that the Court of Appeals caseload is declining--from 10,370 new filings in 1995, when the Court of Appeals was increased to 28 judges, to 6,257 filings in 2009. I think the budget situation is severe enough that there may finally be some interest in pursuing these recommendations."

The recommendations Young is referring to may be found in the State Court Administrative Office's biennial Judicial Resources Recommendations published on odd numbered years. The last was published in September 2009. The 2011 report will likely come out in August, September or October, per the trend over the past six years or so.

The 2009 Judicial Resources Recommendations called for the elimination of 15 trial court judgeships through attrition, the conversion of one probate judgeship to a circuit judgeship and the addition of one circuit judgeship.

The recommendations are based on caseload analysis.

Besides Wayne County, other courts slated to lose judgeships include:

--Fourth Circuit (Iron County): one circuit and one district court judgeships.

--23rd Circuit (Alcona, Arenac, Iosco and Oscoda Counties): one district and one probate judgeships.

--32nd Circuit (Gogebic and Ontonagon Counties): one district judgeship.

--12th Circuit (Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw Counties): one district judgeship.

--25th Circuit (Marquette County): one circuit and one district judgeships.

--Ninth Circuit (Kalamazoo County): one district judgeship.

--46th Circuit (Crawford, Kalkaska and Otsego Counties): one circuit judgeship.

--50th District (Pontiac): one judgeship.

--19th Circuit (Benzie and Manistee Counties): one district judgeship.

--26th Circuit (Alpena and Montmorency Counties): one district judgeship.

--51st Circuit (Lake and Mason Counties): one district judgeship.

The only court to get additional judgeships in the 2009 SCAO recommendations was Macomb County's 16th Circuit, which was slated to add one circuit judgeship and convert one probate judgeship to a circuit judgeship.

When, and if, all 15 trial court judgeships were eliminated through attrition, the state would save about $2.2 million a year, not counting savings to local funding units. Total state costs, including salary, FICA and travel reimbursement, are $158,563.76 for circuit and probate judges and $156,777.58 for district judges.

As it did in 2007, and as Chief Justice Young pointed out, the SCAO again recommended in 2009 that the number of state appellate court judges be reduced, through attrition, from 28 to 24.

The SCAO estimates that eliminating four Court of Appeals judgeships, including staffs (judicial assistants and law clerks) would save the state about $1.5 million a year. The SCAO recommends using half the savings to hire 10 entry-level prehearing attorneys at an annual cost (salary and benefits) of $70,000 per.

The salary for Michigan Court of Appeals judges is $151,441. (Supreme Court justices earn $164,610 a year.)

House Bill 5276, introduced last year addresses many of the SCAO's recommended changes.

If passed by the Legislature, Wayne County's 63 circuit judgeships would be reduced to 58 by 2015.

HB 5276, sponsored by term-limited State Rep. Rick Jones, R-Eaton County, did not include provisions for Macomb County.

At the end of the 2010 session, HB 5276 remained in the Judiciary Committee.

A year ago, State Rep. Shannelle Jackson, D-Detroit, introduced House Bill 4140 that would re-create the Detroit Recorder's Court. Its 29 judges would be required to be Detroit residents and would have "exclusive jurisdiction over criminal violations occurring in the city of Detroit punishable by more than one year."

Over a period of several elections - the first, third and fifth odd-numbered years after the re-creation of the Recorder's Court - the number of Third Circuit Wayne County judges would be reduced by 29 over a 10-year period.

HB 4140 remained in committee at the end of 2010. Jackson could not be reached for comment.

As of Jan. 11, no committee assignments for the new legistlative session had been announced.

Published: Thu, Jan 13, 2011