County Courting New Judge

April 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County commissioners will vote this week on whether to add another judge to the 17th Circuit Court.

If they do, the filing deadline for candidates will be May 2, with a primary election set for August. The top two vote-getters will face off in the November general election.

The impetus to add a circuit court judge came from a state Senate bill whose primary sponsor was Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood.  The bill was signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm late last week.

“The vote was unanimous in both the House and Senate, which shows the need,” said Chief Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan.

But adding another justice to the court won’t come cheaply for the county. Even though the state pays a judge’s salary, the county will have to foot the bill for two court clerks, two assistant prosecuting attorneys and a part-time docket clerk. That tab will add over $350,000 worth of expenses to next year’s operating budget. Kent will also have to spend another $51,000 on office space, furniture and equipment for the new assistant prosecutors.

“This is difficult for us when we look at this expense. But it is something that we need to do,” said Commissioner Jack Horton, a member of the Legislative and Human Resources Committee, which has approved the expenditure.

Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson told the committee that the county could manage the higher circuit court expense in the short term. But Swanson also noted that the county’s financial situation could change in 2011, the same year the state is supposed to restore revenue sharing to counties. If the state doesn’t do that, then the county is likely to see less revenue beginning that year.

In the meantime, Swanson advised both the court and the county to be diligent toward expenditures and revenue activities. She added that the circuit court may want to consider alternative staffing patterns and operational methods for the coming years.

Sullivan told the committee that adding another justice to the bench would deliver better service to county residents at a time when caseloads are piling up. In fact, Sullivan said, the biggest complaint the court gets is about delays. He said adding another judge wouldn’t get rid of the problem, but it would help relieve some of it.

“Our court has been aggressive in trying to move cases ahead as best we can,” he said.

“I see this as more of an effort that we don’t get further behind. An additional judge isn’t going to let any of us back off or slack off,” he added.

But Commissioner Nadine Klein said another judge was needed because of the backlog of cases that the court is facing.

“It’s really difficult to tell a client who wants a divorce that they have to wait nine months for a pre-trial hearing,” said Klein, a family law attorney, litigator and former prosecutor.

Sullivan explained that some civil cases get settled before reaching a judge, while others can take three months or longer to try.

“Case numbers are only one factor,” he said.

Sullivan said the new judge would work half of the time in the family division and half in the civil and criminal division.

“It will be my decision that the new judge will take a divided caseload,” he said.

The county passed on adding a judge to the court two years ago. County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said space is available in the courthouse for a new judge.

“We want to ensure that people get justice as quickly as possible and that’s why we’re passing this measure,” said County Vice Chairman Dan Koorndyk, who chairs the Finance Committee, which also approved the expenditure.

To get on the primary ballot, a candidate has to collect from 2,000 to 4,000 signatures on a petition by 4 p.m. on May 2. But that process can’t start until Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land designates the position. She is expected to do within 24 hours after commissioners approve the addition to the court. Commissioners will vote on the matter Thursday.

The circuit court currently has 12 judges, with six in each division.    

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