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Massive Jefferson District court reorganization proposed


Fifteen years after a national study claimed Jefferson District Court was plagued by lazy judges who were accountable to nobody, dumped work on their colleagues and treated litigants like cattle, a makeover may finally be nearing.

A committee of judges, attorneys, prosecutors and court officials has been meeting since December 2008 to propose ways to reorganize district court, potentially effecting thousands of citizens who go there every day to take care of misdemeanors, minor civil cases, traffic cases, juvenile cases, probate, disability and other matters.

Seven proposals have been made, including suggestions such as making sure judges stay with cases until they are concluded, instead of handing them off to other judges when they rotate every six months.

Other suggestions would stagger cases throughout the day so there wouldn't be a morning crush of people waiting for hours to appear before a judge.

Some judges say changes are long overdue.

"The system we have now hides malingerers," Chief District Judge Sean Delahanty said recently. "Jefferson County is the only county where judges are not held truly accountable."

The 17 District Court judges are working toward a recommendation, but some officials say there has been much disagreement during their closed meetings over how much change is needed and how quickly it should be done.

"It's not easy to get a group of judges to agree on anything," said senior status Judge Steve Mershon, who is helping mediate.

To illustrate that, the judges can't even agree on whether they can talk to the media about the re-organization.

Judge Anne Haynie, for example, the co-chairperson of the reorganization committee, said she could not discuss the potential reorganization because of an agreement made by the judges to speak only through Mershon.

But Delahanty, the other co-chairperson, has repeatedly spoken with The Courier-Journal about the process and plans, doggedly pitching a complete overhaul of the system.

And some judges say they have already taken a tentative vote on what they would like to do, but they disagreed when speaking to the newspaper about what exactly was decided by that vote.

It was a bizarre thing and that's all I want to say about it," Delahanty said.

The judges are meeting Monday, in part, Mershon said, to try and get everyone on the same page.

"Change is difficult," said Delahanty, speaking of some judges' apprehension. "And this would be a culture shock, changing what we've been doing for the last 30 years."

Jefferson District Court starts at 9 a.m., with thousands of people crowding for seats and lining hallways, some waiting hours for their case to be heard - a problem the National Center for State Courts said needed to be addressed 15 years ago in its study of the trouble court system.

"Volume is driving the system to produce dispositions on a fast treadmill with little opportunity for anyone to study the facts, consider alternative … dispositions or explain what is happening to bewildered members of the public," the report said.

Delahanty said 75 percent of the courthouse traffic is in the morning, with most people arriving at 9 a.m. instead of staggering criminal cases throughout the day.

"There are days this place looks like Grand Central Station," he said.

Jefferson district judges rotate dockets every six months, handling exclusively either criminal, civil, juvenile or traffic cases, before trading off. When the judges move, they inherit all the cases, meaning a case may be handed off several times.

"There were certain judges you didn't want to end up behind in the rotation system," Mershon said of past years when he worked District Court, though he stressed that the current group of judges are much more efficient. "They would just pile cases up."

Delahanty has proposed a system more like circuit court, where each judge has his own docket of all types of cases - civil, criminal, disability, probate and juvenile - and keeps them until they are concluded.

"The case would belong to you forever, following you wherever you go," he said.

He also would like to see cases schedule in the morning and afternoon to ease crowding, so "hopefully we eliminate some of the cattle-call nature of the business we do."

But some judges and reorganization committee members say Delahanty's plan is too drastic, and perhaps too costly.

"You have to start and work your way into these things," said Judge Claude Prather, who likes the idea of Delahanty's plan but doesn't know if it practical. "You just can't create havoc all at one time."

The Jefferson County Attorney's Office believes ending the rotation system would confuse the public about where they need to go for their case. And county prosecutors, who often specialize in DUI or juvenile cases and spend time in one courtroom, would be spread thin and have to become acquainted with all types of cases that would come up in every courtroom.

Mershon said judges have favored a more moderate plan that would combine criminal dockets - putting traffic, non-support, misdemeanor, warrant and felony cases together on the same dockets - and spread them among more judges, while instituting longer rotations, perhaps for up to two years and possibly staggering dockets.

County Attorney Mike O'Connell and his office has proposed a plan that would create two separate domestic-violence courts for 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year, adding more traffic cases to night and staggering dockets.

Those cases are more complex and dangerous, deserving more time and focus from judges, he said: "It doesn't need to be mixed in with shoplifting and alcohol intoxication cases."

Dan Goyette, head of Jefferson County Public Defender's office, who has proposed a plan similar to Delahanty's, called the current system a relic from decades past.

"The quality of justice really suffers as a result," he said.

Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk David Nicholson said his office is not pushing any plan, but when the clerk's office rated each of the seven plans Delahanty's ranked the highest.

"We have lost sight of our mission statement," Delahanty said of some of the other plans.