Recommendations made on balancing court caseloads; Womack targets Pulaski | Arkansas Blog

Friday, September 14, 2018

Recommendations made on balancing court caseloads; Womack targets Pulaski

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 12:44 PM

A working group of judges has discussed some possibilities for adding judgeships in five districts with heavy growing caseloads by subtracting them from other districts. Noteworthy: Supreme Court Justice Shawn Womack continues to control the proceedings and his knives are out for Pulaski County.

Here's the summary of the ideas reviewed this week by a working group of judges that will eventually reach the Judicial Resources Assessment Committee of the Arkansas Judicial Council. It recommends five new judgeships for the 2nd, 4th, 12th, 19th W., and 21st districts. It would add them by eliminating five judgeships in other districts and balancing some low caseload districts with added territory.

It would eliminate one judgeship each in the 1st, 6th (Pulaski and Perry) and 11th Districts and two in the 10th, in theory at no cost of current jobs because of expected retirements. Pulaski judges hotly oppose losing a judge, but the summary of the proposal says:

The 6th (Pulaski and Perry Counties) is unique. They would gain 100 cases per judge with one seat eliminated (going from 17 to 16 judges). However, the work load per case is not the same in Pulaski County as it is for the rest of the state. Pulaski County provides full-time attorneys to work as clerks for all judges. So, the extra 100 cases per year per judge (less than 2 cases per week) would be absorbed not only by 16 judges, but also by 16 staff attorneys. Also, Pulaski county now has eight (8) full-time state district judges who can absorb more of the caseload burden than the district judges in any other district in the state. Additionally, the General Assembly changed the venue statute in 2017, which will likely result in some cases being heard in other parts of the state which have historically been required to be heard in Pulaski County. Finally, population has been relatively stable in the 6th in recent years with Pulaski only growing 2.9% and Perry shrinking 0.9% between 2010 and 2017..

And here's the spreadsheet on cases.

Note: The working group did NOT approve all these ideas as I may have suggested. Indeed, there were many and varied objections and split votes though Womack declared some proposals approved by casting a "vote" that other judges contend he does not have.

There's opposition from the affected districts that will lose judges. In the 10th, for example, the argument that the positions won't cost anyone a job because of expected retirements won't work because the judges there say they have no retirement plans. Fewer judges in the 1st will make it hard to serve an already sprawling district, they say. And so on.

There are many questions about whether Womack should have a role in shaping the proposal since the JRAC is supposed to be composed of trial judges and also questions about the working group he formed that produced this set of recommendations. But he's asserted the authority to lead the talks and so far has been undeterred.

In the end, the legislature will make the call and it is free to ignore the wishes of the full JRAC or the whole Judicial Council. Womack, a former Republican state senator, plays more politics than law. He reportedly told the working group if they don't take a judge out of Pulaski, the legislature will take two. His remarks have been interpreted by judges there as indicating he'd take his own proposal to the legislature. Ethics? Separation of powers? Appearances count only when a judge expresses religious belief in public while being black.

And speaking of black judges: Womack's idea tends to deprive heavily black areas of judges to move judges to heavily white areas, one critic noted. And Womack has not included lawyers who crafted the Hunt decree in the discussions, as that decision requires. This was the lawsuit over discrimination against blacks in judgeships that led to the creation of judicial subdistricts with majority black populations from which several black judges have been elected. 

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