March 26, 2003
Disorder in the court: State assumption of district courts leaving more questions than answers


In front of the genealogy society, June Little gave a little advice and griped a little bit about the difficulty working with bureaucrats, especially when trying to get information. Little’s troubles, though, go beyond trying to fight city hall. As Park County’s clerk of district court, Little has spent the last nine months trying to fight the state capitol, just to get the information she needs to run her office.

The counties funded the district courts, with some grants and reimbursements from the state. Beginning last July, the state of Montana took over all the district courts, including judges’ offices, court reporters, juvenile probation officers, and indigent defense. Senate Bill 176 and House Bill 124 made all of the people in those programs state employees or state contract workers. Clerks of district court, including their expenses, lobbied to stay part of the counties. But the court fees and penalties, which partially funded the clerks’ offices, are now being sent directly to the state, to be reimbursed later.

“They’re getting fees from cases in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s,” said Marilyn Hollister, clerk of court in Custer County and president of the Montana Association of the Clerks of Court. “They’re getting more money than they ever thought they would.”

The clerks weren’t reimbursed for the last fiscal year until Christmas, and they haven’t received anything yet for this year. “Everybody needed paychecks,” said Nancy Sweeney, clerk of court for Lewis and Clark county. “There wasn’t even a system to submit timesheets. Whenever you assume 400 more employees, it’s a difficult situation. The devil’s in the details.”

Despite assuming 100 percent of the costs of criminal trials, the state is only responsible for 65 percent for child abuse or neglect cases and indigent defense or public defenders, and 50 percent for county attorneys, for example. Civil trials, juvenile proceedings, and involuntary commitments were only assumed by the state if the counties had had a civil trial, involuntary commitment, or juvenile proceeding in 1998 or 1999, which not all counties did.

Even things that the state says it will fund completely, it won’t fund if it doesn’t judge that it will have the available funds. “The expenses are directly paid by the county and subsequently reimbursed at 65 percent,” reads reimbursement policy 830, as given to the clerks of district court, “by the state district courts program, contingent in fiscal year 2003 on available funding.”

There are two important things in that policy, taken directly from SB 176. First, the state doesn’t require itself to pay for the programs it took over if it doesn’t think it will have the money. Secondly, the state still expects the counties to pay for the programs, and it will pay them back at leisure. “Taxpayers are still paying the bills, and the state has all the money,” Hollister said.

According to Little’s records, in February 2002, before SB 176 took effect, the Park County clerk of court sent off $5658.98 in fees and received back $2705.38 for that month. In February 2003, they sent off $4714 and received back $255. Previous to SB 176, Park County’s budget allowed $281,542 for the district court fund. A mil levy covers $167,391 of that; the rest was supplied by the fees collected by the court or reimbursed from the state.

“It’s been difficult, to say the least,” said Sweeney. “Counties have had to budget to pay for jury trials. It created a lot of uncertainty on the counties, budget-wise. That’s creating a lot of consternation at the state level. It’s an almost insurmountable barrier,” Sweeney concluded. “We need a couple more years…until we reach some kind of plateau. Though the intent is good, the implementation is miserable.”

The good intent of the bill was to give a higher, more equal quality of public defense, according to Harold Blattie from the Montana Association of counties. There has long been threat of lawsuits from the ACLU and other organizations claiming that there is inadequate counsel given to indigent defendants. By moving public defenders, among other programs, into a homogenized state justice program, supporters of the bill hope to improve the quality of public defense statewide, and stave off a debilitating ACLU suit.

“The direction things are moving is unquestionably the right direction,” Blattie stated. “Public defense is where our greatest expense is.”

The bill also created a technology fund to get some uniformity and necessary upgrades to the court system. Many district courts, including Park County, are still running DOS systems which can’t network to other systems. “It provides some planning (for technology) which I think had been absent before on the county level,” Sweeney said. “It’s a good thing.”

But not all clerks of court are as willing to give SB 176 another chance. “It was not very well thought out or researched, and it has not been well implemented, and it needs to be repealed,” said Hollister.

“There was no clear definition of all costs that would be assessed,” Sweeney added. “We didn’t think it had been analyzed enough, so we asked to stay part of the counties.” The clerks of district court had requested that they be excluded from SB 176 in exchange for not opposing it, what Hollister called a deal with the devil. There are still no plans to bring the clerks under the umbrella of the state justice system.

“Personally, I’m opposed to the state coming in,” said Little. “That’s what the trend is. I like the idea of answering to taxpayers and not asking somebody in Helena if I’m doing this correctly. Local taxpayers have to have some say.”

Clean-up legislation is being proposed this session, but the ramifications stretch from simply abolishing the sunset set for next July to returning the burden completely to the counties to turning all operations fully over to the state. Right now, Senate Bill 134, proposed by Senator Bill McNutt who also proposed SB 176, is the major bill following up where SB 176 left off, but it is still in committee.

“Jury trials are still happening,” Sweeney said. “It certainly didn’t destroy the system as some detractors thought. Clerks of courts just want to make sure the community gets served, and they are.”