A recent state study shows this area needs the most judges
BENTON -- Local judges are handling more than their fair share of cases but are managing it well under the circumstances.
"Down here in the Bootheel everything is working out well even though the studies are showing we need additional personnel. We are making due with what we have," said Circuit Judge David A. Dolan of the 33rd Circuit Court. "I think most of the judges here are just committed -- that's what their job is. They know what is expected and they do it. I think they all work pretty hard."
A recent study confirms area judges are working extra hard based on the number of judges and the number of cases handled by those judges.
"Last year, the State Office of the Court Administrator had the National Center for State Courts do an independent analysis of the weighted work load for all of the courts in the state of Missouri," Dolan said.
The study consisted of all of the judges reporting by computer for a 30-day period what types of cases they were hearing, orders they signed, and how long it took to do these things.
"They compiled that data and from all of that data they determined what they call a 'weighted work load,' which is the number of cases per judge, for the entire state," Dolan said. "They determined by circuit where the case load indicated more judicial personnel were needed or that there were more judicial personnel in that circuit than were required."
According to the analysis, Bootheel counties were generally found to be needing additional judges.
"In our area of the state, the southeast part of the state, we appear to have not enough judicial personnel. The weighted workload indicated the number of cases are very high compared to the number of judicial officers that we have," Dolan said. "Scott County and Mississippi County, which is the 33rd circuit, are two judicial personnel short."
Part of the 33rd circuit's case load is due to the Southeast Correctional Center's 1,500 inmates as all crimes that happen in the facility are the circuit's responsibility.
"That really burdens the staff over in Mississippi County," Dolan said.
Elsewhere in the Bootheel, the 35th circuit, which is Stoddard and Dunklin counties, is short by 1.5 judges. The 36th circuit -- Ripley and Butler counties -- shows a similar workload also being short-handed by 1.5 judges.
The 34th circuit, which is New Madrid and Pemiscot Counties, "were right where they needed to be," Dolan said.
The 32nd Judicial Circuit, which includes Perry, Bollinger and Cape Girardeau counties, was also found to be two judges short.
While most people don't consider Cape Girardeau to be in the Bootheel, "we share a lot of people and activity," Dolan said.
"In order to help take up that excess workload, other judges are either transfered in or assigned on a case-by-case basis by the Supreme Court to come in to assist," Dolan explained.
Local judges are doing well as far as sharing the workload, according to Dolan.
"They're very good in working through that situation," he said. "Most of the help we get around here comes from the 32nd circuit, the 35th circuit, the 36th circuit."
Bootheel judges are not completely on their own, however.
"We do get a lot of help from judges from other circuits," Dolan said. "We've had judges from Reynolds County, Wayne County, the 37th circuit which is west of Poplar Bluff, when assigned by the Supreme Court. It's not unusual to see a judge from a different circuit over here once a week."
The case load study may result in some sort of action this year.
"The Supreme Court is in the process right now of determining a judicial transfer policy," Dolan said. "That policy is being developed as we speak. I expect there will be some reference or announcement of that policy when Chief Justice Stith makes her State of the Judiciary address." The address is expected to be delivered in early February, Dolan said.
"The northern part of the state appears to be the area where they have extra judicial personnel," Dolan said. While judges will not be moved around, it is possible state authorities may "fashion some type of plan in which those judicial personnel are assigned to hear cases in circuits in which there are not sufficient personnel," Dolan said. "I think what is going to work out is the state is going to be divided into a east half and west half. Where that line is going to be is going to be decided on by the committee that is working on the judicial transfer.
"As far as the Bootheel is concerned, the judges in the Bootheel work very well together. Whenever we need assistance, we have never had a problem getting additional judicial personnel to come in and take cases. Some of the judges are really going above and beyond."
Dolan said that in addition to being short on judges, this circuit is also short on courtrooms.
"If we had an extra judicial officer in the 33rd judicial circuit, where would we put him or her?" he asked.
The 33rd Circuit Court currently has one circuit judge, three associate circuit judges and a drug commissioner.
What this circuit really needs, Dolan said, is a second circuit judge like the 32nd circuit has. This is especially important in cases when change of judge is requested and attorneys do not agree to use one of the circuit's associate judges, he said.
"It kind of slows down the process when you disqualify the only circuit judge because then it has go to the Supreme Court to assign another judge," Dolan said.
If the circuit had a second circuit judge, the case would automatically go there.
"Currently the chief justice approves more than 200 judicial transfer orders per month," Dolan said.
In the meantime, area judges will keep on doing the best they can.
"The judges in this area really work well together in order to meet the demand," Dolan said. "It's part of the job. Everybody just rolls up their sleeves and goes to work."