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Jackson County courts 'at a breaking point'


Local judges and lawyers are sending a strong message to the Oregon Legislature that Jackson County needs at least one more judge to handle the skyrocketing number of cases.

The nine judges in Jackson County Circuit Court decide the fate of everyone from convicted murderers to children who have been placed in foster care due to abuse and neglect at home.

Despite population growth and more criminal and civil cases, the court in downtown Medford has had the same number of judges for 15 years, said Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Tim Gerking.

“With the expanded population and the ever-increasing need for court services, we are really running at a breaking point in terms of the need for at least one additional judge,” he said.

Jackson County Circuit Court handles the third-highest volume of cases statewide, but ranks sixth when it comes to the number of judges, according to state data on circuit courts.

“It’s time that the Legislature took a careful look at our needs down here in Jackson County,” Gerking said.

Approximately 26,000 new cases flooded into the local court in 2018 — almost 2,900 per judge, according to preliminary data.

Many cases require multiple hearings to resolve.

Mondays are often the busiest as people arrested over the weekend swell the ranks of defendants.

On a recent Monday, the court had 390 hearings scheduled, ranging from arraignments on new criminal charges to guilty pleas. A full lineup of judges worked the courtrooms, putting aside their other duties, such as responding to motions, reviewing the background of complex cases and helping lawyers working out plea agreements.

On Friday of last week, the number of court hearings had dropped to 128. But the number of judges assigned to courtroom duties also fell.

Judges Laura Cromwell, Lisa Greif and Lorenzo Mejia handled most of the Friday hearings.

Based on an eight-hour workday with no breaks, the schedule required Cromwell to handle each of her assigned hearings in 10 minutes on average, Greif to get through hers in 12 minutes and Mejia to allocate 13 minutes per hearing, a Mail Tribune analysis of cases per judge shows.

“It’s a huge volume of cases,” Greif said.

If the court could add a judge, that person likely would handle cases involving kids. That’s where the need is greatest, Gerking said.

Jackson County has one of the highest rates of juvenile dependency cases involving abused and neglected children in the state, according to court data.

Federal rules say courts should resolve child dependency cases in 90 days, but Jackson County hits that target only 62 percent of the time, court data show.

“Kids are just left in foster care for longer periods of time,” said Gerking.

Greif said it has become increasingly difficult to hit federal targets for resolving cases because Jackson County Circuit Court lacks the capacity to hear all the cases on time.

“We can’t keep up,” she said.

Locally, it’s taking too long to find permanent homes for kids, including through adoption, because of delays in the court process, Gerking said.

He said the high volume of child dependency cases is distressing and demoralizing for judges.

Jackson County Circuit Court did get funding in 2018 to hire a person called a referee to work on restraining-order applications, landlord-tenant disputes and other lower-level court matters. That has helped ease some of the strain, but the court still needs a new judge, Gerking said.

Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters is backing Jackson County’s plea for more resources in her proposed budget to the state Legislature.

She met with local judges, lawyers, legislators and others early Friday morning as part of the launch of the Citizens’ Campaign for Court Funding.

Funding the state’s circuit court system at current levels would cost $555.7 million, accounting for 2.24 percent of Oregon general fund spending, according to budget figures.

Walters is advocating for an additional $4.5 million to add 14 judges with support staff to the system — including one new judge for Jackson County.

She also wants circuit court judge salaries to rise from an average of about $145,000 to $155,000 this year, with another increase pushing salaries to $160,000 in 2021.

Walters said the increase, which would cost $7.5 million, would lift circuit court judge pay closer to the $210,000 average earned by U.S. District Court judges and many lawyers in the private sector.

Among her other priorities is spending $1.5 million more on court security.

Greif said she supports the effort to improve court security. When emotions run high in court cases, people might lose control and become violent.

“You have people who are here on very emotional things,” she said. “They’re here on criminal matters. They’re here on restraining orders. They’re here on divorce cases. They’re here on child welfare cases where their children may have been removed from their home. Maybe they’re losing their home in a landlord-tenant case. Those are all very emotional things.”

The Oregon Supreme Court chief justice is also advocating for $9.7 million to boost staffing levels in courts to better serve the public, speed up court document processing and process warrants.

Jackson County Circuit Court is among the courts statewide that have had to trim the hours when certain services are available. Some services aren’t available during the noon lunch hour and after 4 p.m. — making it hard for people with jobs to access the courts, Gerking said.

Walters said when people without attorneys can’t get court-facilitator help for tasks such as filling out divorce and child-custody paperwork, they hand in documents that are incomplete or improperly done. That creates frustration, delays and — at times — bitter family arguments.

Walters said courts are a bedrock of democracy.

When judges have the time to listen to people and deliver fair, impartial decisions without undue delay, they demonstrate that the system of justice works. But when people aren’t treated that way, they become cynical and lose faith in democracy and the rule of law, she said.

“We are the foundation on which so much else is built,” Walters said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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