Oakland County needs a total of eight new judges in its Circuit and Probate courts based on the workload jurists in those courts encounter, but that figure is tempered by various district courts across the county, including at the 48th District Court, where judgeships can be eliminated and financial resources can be saved.
At least, that’s what the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) said on Wednesday, Aug. 17 in its biennial 2011 Judicial Resources Recommendations (JRR) report, which recommended a total reduction of 49 judgeships across the state, including four at the state Court of Appeals.
While the county as a whole needs the additional judges, the report states 6.5 new judgeships in total are warranted, when taking into consideration that some of the county’s district courts — including the 52nd District Court and the 48th District Court — could operate with fewer judges.
But the SCAO, which oversees the Michigan Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and all circuit and district courts in the state of Michigan, stopped short of formally recommending the additional judgeships due to the state’s economic climate.
And as a whole, the report recommends eliminating 45 trial court judges and four more from the Michigan Court of Appeals, while also calling for a combined 31 new trial court judgeships.
“This is unprecedented, not just in Michigan but nationally, to have a state court system not only recognize that it needs to shrink, but also have a practical plan to accomplish that goal,” said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr. in a press release announcement the report’s findings. “And to have the universal endorsement of the judiciary’s leadership — that has never happened before. This is an aggressive, but achievable, set of recommendations. We are unaware of any reduction of this magnitude attempted anywhere in our country.”
SCAO Public Information Officer Marcia McBrien echoed the chief judge’s sentiment.
“The scope of the reduction that the (state) Supreme Court is recommending is unprecedented,” she said.
In the 52nd District Court — which has two branches, the 52-1 and 52-2 district courts, serving communities in west Oakland County and two more serving other county communities — the JRR report calls for one less judge, bringing that court system from 11 to 10 jurists through attrition. While the population in communities serviced by the 52nd District Court system has increased by nearly 23 percent in the last two decades, the total number of case filings since 2003 has dipped by 17.4 percent, the report states.
In the 48th District Court, which serves Orchard Lake and West Bloomfield in the lakes area, the current roster of judges could be trimmed from three to two through attrition, the report states, although the court’s case filings since 2003 have gone up by more than 24 percent.
“At this point, we are willing to do our part,” said Jim Harkins, administrator of the 48th District Court, who added that he believes the three judges on the court’s bench have reviewed the recommendations. “It’s kind of premature to speculate about what’s going to happen. Right now, we’ve got 48,000 cases a year to handle, and that’s what we are going to do.”
Other recommendations for Oakland County district courts include the elimination of two judgeships in the 50th District Court in Pontiac; the elimination of one judgeship at the 44th District Court in Royal Oak; and the consolidation of the 45-A and 45-B district courts in Berkley and Oak Park, respectively, resulting in the elimination of one judgeship.
The findings of the 2011 JRR report have been shared with Gov. Rick Snyder, who Young said supports the recommendations, and the state Legislature, which is responsible for passing legislation eliminating or creating judgeships.
The recommendations were made based on a two-part analysis that included a weighted caseload formula in which cases that require more judicial work are given higher value, as well as population and case filing trends, according to the SCAO.
One of the 17 Oakland County Circuit Court bench seats is set to be restored on Jan. 1, 2015, after it was temporarily eliminated through attrition by the state Legislature.