Wyoming may expand its district court system to address case backlogs and staffing shortages in several counties around the state.
If approved by the full Legislature this winter, Natrona, Campbell and Uinta Counties will each receive an additional district court judge under draft legislation advanced by the Joint Judiciary Committee on Monday.
The bill, which passed unanimously, aims to alleviate an increasing backlog of cases one district court judge claimed to be reaching a “crisis point” that potentially threatens the court’s constitutional obligation to provide citizens with a speedy trial.
“Frankly, the wheels are kind of falling off,” Catherine E. Wilking, judge for the Seventh District Court in Casper, told lawmakers Monday.
Because of the existing backlog, one judge told lawmakers, cases filed this September may not be heard in a courtroom until October 2022. And that’s with some judges reporting dockets of 15 to 20 cases daily. Officials with the Wyoming State Bar said they have experienced difficulty getting time in court even for a 15-minute civil proceeding.
Typically desirable positions in Lander and Cody courtrooms have gone unfilled, largely due to high workloads and levels of compensation that remain uncompetitive with the private sector.
“Most people in private practice would have to take a pay cut to be a judge,” said Billie Addleman, a partner at Cheyenne law firm Hirst Applegate and president of the Wyoming Bar Association. “The workload and the amount of compensation that we’re currently giving to judges makes it a real challenge for people considering to put in for a judicial position.”
If adopted, the legislation will represent the first expansion of the court since 2018, when Laramie County received a fourth judge. The total cost to the state would be $3 million per two-year budget cycle.
Workloads and recruitment
Joint Judiciary Committee members initially considered adding just one judge in the 7th District Court. However, citing significant workloads in a trio of courts around Wyoming, lawmakers eventually elected to expand the number to three.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a months-long interruption in Wyoming’s court proceedings, which created a significant backlog in cases. Though the number of district court filings actually declined in 2020, according to court data, it wasn’t enough to balance the demand. The stress on the state’s judicial system persisted into 2021, judges testified Monday, creating a logjam more than a year long.
Lawmakers briefly weighed adding staff to assist existing judges. While staff are invaluable, judges said, many of the duties of the judiciary can only be carried out by judges themselves. And right now, they said, there simply aren’t enough of them.
Weighted statistics provided by the Wyoming court system show some judges performing the work of three. Many judges report working nights or through their lunch breaks, Casper judge Wilking said, while others work on weekends to merely keep pace with the high caseloads. That burden, she said, could threaten the fabric of the judiciary.
“We are encouraged to try and recruit good potential candidates, and we try to do that,” Wilking said. “And now, when we ask people to put in for that position, we have really good lawyers saying ‘Are you kidding? Are you out of your mind? I don’t want to work that hard. I see your car at the courthouse, working weekends, nights, working on vacation. And I don’t want to do that.’
“So it becomes a crisis, because you’re not going to have good applicants. It’s a crisis because we can’t do our jobs for your constituents in a timely fashion,” she said. Add to that judges leaving their positions before retirement, she said, and “it’s not sustainable.”
Further complicating things is that some cases are time sensitive, which can add to the backlog or delay other basic proceedings. Addleman, who specializes in civil cases, said he’s grown accustomed to his proceedings getting “bumped” due to time-sensitive matters like criminal or family court cases, which often demand significant resources from the court.
Without an answer, judges said, the issue could get worse.
“This is not about me, this is not about any other judges. This is how we can provide the glue to our society,” Third District Judge Joseph Bluemel told lawmakers.
A larger issue
The bill is just one in a suite of legislation being drafted in response to a burgeoning staffing crisis in the state’s judicial system.
While the Wyoming Judicial Branch tracks each judge’s workload, the Wyoming Legislature does not. If adopted by the Legislature this winter, another new piece of legislation the committee passed Monday would require a similar set of data to be provided to lawmakers each budget session. The idea is that they could use it to inform decisions about the allotment of judges in each region.
Lawmakers also advanced a bill to amend the Wyoming Constitution to increase the mandatory retirement age for judges from Wyoming’s nation-low age of 70 to 75, a number more in line with other states.
But some say those efforts are still not enough to address greater issues straining Wyoming’s justice system.
Pay rates for judges and their staff lag behind that of attorneys in the private sector, Addleman said, at a time where internal surveys by the Wyoming State Bar show growing levels of professional dissatisfaction within the organization’s ranks. Meanwhile, recent cuts to the state public defender’s office have put the agency in crisis, with some individuals declining to represent certain cases.
The solution, Addleman said, is to invest more in those public sector positions.
“I think it is going to continue to be a challenge in our state,” Addleman said. “The whole revenue-generation issue right now is figuring out, ‘how do we pay for adjustments to compensation?’”