Wyoming State of the Judiciary: Managing caseloads with static revenues and discontent in civil litigation

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Due to an unfortunate oversight, I failed to catch one of the first State of the Judiciary addresses delivered in 2011, in this case the one delivered by Marilyn S. Kite, Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court. The speech, delivered to a joint session of the legislature on January 11, included the presence of the state’s governor (only the second state, along with New Mexico, where that appears to have occurred). Governor Matt Mead delivered his State of the State address just before the chief justice delivered hers. There does not appear to have been a formal resolution filed, only an invitation given by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House to the chief justice.

The House and Senate met in joint session on January 11 to hear the speech. Highlights of the the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

What we are doing here today, bringing together the three separate and independent branches of government, constitutes an important tradition, symbolizing a unity of purpose, and provides us with a brief moment in which we can speak to each other and to the citizens of Wyoming as well as listen to each other and appreciate the importance of our respective efforts on behalf of this State.

I suppose one of the most obvious changes is that after four years of accomplished leadership, Justice Barton Voigt has passed that mantle on to me. Justice Voigt’s efforts over the past four years are far too many to mention, not the least of which were overseeing the design and construction of the remodel of the Supreme Court Building and leading the court system into the 21st century with electronic filing and docket management. On behalf of all of us serving in the Judiciary, I want to thank you, Justice Voigt, for your devotion to the job, your diligence, and your ever-present sense of humor. We all owe you a great debt.

The Supreme Court and the Access to Justice Commission have been busy implementing legislation this body adopted last year to provide funding through an increase in court filing fees to coordinate and support legal services for over 70,000 of our citizens who are financially eligible…The upcoming year will see much progress in this effort and we are committed to fulfilling this body’s intent to provide for justice for all of our citizens, not just those that can afford it.

In performing our work, we are facing some major challenges and we are working hard to meet them. While statistics certainly don’t tell the whole story, a quick look at our case filings show that the Wyoming courts are vibrant, busy, and getting their job done. The circuit courts processed over 180,000 cases last year, that includes all of law enforcement’s citations, and the district courts handled over 20,000 cases.

Despite this good news, we, like the other two branches of government, face extraordinary challenges. I want to talk to you today about two of those challenges in particular. No. 1 is how to become more efficient internally as we perform our jobs. And No. 2 is how to reduce the cost and delay to the private citizens in civil litigation.

1. How do we manage an ever-increasing workload with static or even declining revenues? We are all well aware that other states have not been as fortunate as we have financially, and many have seen draconian cuts in funding to the point of even closing some courts thus denying citizens access to justice. We are committed to assuring that we spend state resources responsibly and efficiently in order to assure the citizens of Wyoming never face that prospect.

The most obvious opportunity for enhanced efficiency is to better utilize the circuit courts. As you know, their jurisdiction is currently limited to misdemeanors and civil cases involving less than $7,000. That limit was set 15 years ago and needs to be significantly increased.

Electronic filing and docket management is in place and functioning well in the Supreme Court. We are about half way through the effort to get all district courts on the same docket management system and to provide electronic filing in those courts as well. As soon as that is complete, we will do the same in the circuit courts…Now, the next technological leap that will have the most impact on our day to day productivity will be when law enforcement is able to issue electronic citations and ultimately the fines can be paid electronically…Finally, on the technology front, most of our judicial districts have video conferencing capability and we are all learning how to use that tool effectively.

2. How do we address the growing discontent with the cost and delay involved in civil litigation? Keeping in mind that our primary job is to provide fair and efficient justice to our citizens, we have initiated an effort to examine our rules and procedures to see how we can do that better. We started by conducting a survey of all Wyoming lawyers and judges and, not surprisingly, it showed that an overwhelming majority of both believe that civil litigation costs too much and takes too long. The cause of this failure of the system is likely a combination of district court workloads in some areas, and outdated, cumbersome rules.

The rules of civil procedure that we follow today were adopted 72 years ago and have been modified very little since…I anticipate we will consider rules changes and possibly propose statutory changes over the next year.

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