Montana State of the Judiciary: No courts, no justice, no freedom

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of current and prior State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

The Montana State of the Judiciary address was delivered by Chief Justice Mike McGrath on January 13 and entitled “No courts, no justice, no freedom.” Audio of the event indications there was no formal resolution adopted. Instead, motions were made in both the house and senate to meet in joint session and, once in session, to appoint a committee to escort all the justices of the supreme court into the house chamber.

Highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) below the fold.
This session, the State of the Judiciary is a mixed bag.

Many people come to court because their lives are in crisis…

They come because they know they have rights. They know that there are laws that will protect them. They know they will get an answer to  heir problem. And they know they will be treated fairly, by an independent judge – not a person beholden to money interests or partisanship or social status. Rather a judge who will listen to their grievance and make a decision based on the merits of each individual case

Those 1,000 people per day that end up in our courts know that our justice system is based on the rule of law and not individual whim. Our disputes are resolved within an orderly system that provides all parties the opportunity to be heard, and is based upon law.

As an independent third branch of government, our responsibilities are great but our needs are small. Our budget is less than 1 percent of the total state budget. Yet we recognize that with judicial independence comes the corresponding responsibility, to be accountable:

  • accountable to the people who elect us, and;
  • accountable to the Legislature, especially as to how we spend public funds
Last session, I told you that the Court is very much aware of the concerns about backlogged cases. Significant improvements have been made.
Four years ago there were 71 cases that were more than 1 year old . Our case load is now current. We have no case s over 6 months old and our average time to resolve a case is less than 100 days.
In the District Courts, even with caseloads dramatically increasing, performance standards are now being implemented. The procedures have been
adapted to accurately measure case loads and case timeliness.

But as I mentioned, the State of the Judiciary is good and bad. In t he last two sessions we have experienced significant budget reductions — including vacancy savings and across the board cuts. Our branch consists of 54 independently – elected officials, 46 of who are elected fr o m their local community. As the vast majority of our budget consists of personnel costs, it has been hard to find areas to cut. Now, our budget is approaching a crisis level.

Fully 30% of our Court’s cases at the Supreme Court are presented with at least one party not represented by an attorney.
Since the Legislature created and funded the program in 2007 , the Self Help centers have assisted 30,000 individuals and small businesses navigate through the complexity of our court system…This program does significantly increase judicial efficiency and it does reduce court backlog.
Drug courts and Treatment courts in general can and do save taxpayer dollars. And the last two sessions, Legislators had the foresight to fund a small portion of these programs.
Over 400 of our employees have not had a pay raise since October 2008. That is approaching 5 years if you provide a raise this session.
We are optimistic that better days are coming and that you will see fit to provide the Judicial Branch an appropriate level of support.