GRAND RAPIDS — To the delight of the legal community, Kent County commissioners agreed to add two more judges to the 17th Circuit Court. Both positions will be filled in the November 2002 election with the winners taking the bench in January 2003.
Commissioners made the decision despite a few concerns that the circuit court system wasn’t performing as efficiently as it could. Although Commissioner Michael Sak voted for the measure, he said he constantly gets mixed reviews about the system from those affiliated with it. Currently the court has seven judges.
The new justices will cost the county between $280,000 and $570,000 each year in staff support. It’s expected to cost $115,390 to create the positions, with the state paying $98,442 of that tab. The state also will pay $188,390 toward the annual judicial salary.
The State Court Administrative Office recommended to the county that it add the judges, a move favored by local attorneys.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at statistics and I’ve realized that we are significantly under-judged,” said Bruce Neckers, a partner at Rhoades, McKee, Boer, Goodrich & Titta and president of the state bar association.
Neckers told commissioners that the system hasn’t always been available to his clients due to a shortage of justices to hear cases. He added that crime victims sometimes don’t have access to justice because of the caseload the circuit court carries.
Bruce Courtade, also a partner at Rhoades McKee, said the constitution requires that everyone have the right of equal access to the courts. He reminded commissioners that right can only be met when there are enough justices in the system.
“When we go back in history, when we go back to the Revolutionary War, the principle that this country was founded on was that the citizens gave up the protection of the King in exchange for the protection that they have access to justice,” said Courtade.
“Right now, in Kent County, the citizens do not have equal access to justice because we are under-judged,” he added. “The simple matter is, we have too many cases for the number of judges we have in the court.”
Brad Glazier, a partner at Bos & Glazier, said the case overload in circuit court has gotten worse since lawmakers separated family court from the circuit system. Now, he said, it often takes 18 months just to get a case on a circuit judge’s docket.
“Just because a case is set for trial 18 months later, it doesn’t mean it actually goes to trial. Often cases are scheduled with the hope that many of these cases may settle. So sometimes you end up waiting two years or longer before a case actually goes to trial,” said Glazier.
Commissioner Katherine Kuhn tried to persuade the commission to add the judges to family court, instead of circuit court, because she felt the need was greater there. But board members didn’t support her motion.
County Commissioner Steve Heacock, also a lawyer, said he wasn’t sure the commission could make that change on its own. Doing so, he remarked, might be in violation of the separation of powers as defined in the constitution.