Four states debate redrawing judicial districts/circuits: should it be a question of caseload? Population? Who should be on the commissions?

This year marks a dramatic uptick in the number of states that are examining the possibility of redrawing their judicial circuits/districts. How states plan on doing this and whether the districts should be redrawn focused on population or court workload are key questions at play.

Kentucky

Section 110 (appellate) and Sections 112 (trial) of the Kentucky constitution contend with the issue of judicial districts. In particular redrawing trial districts puts the Supreme Court into the mix.

The Circuit Court districts existing on the effective date of this amendment to the Constitution shall continue under the name “Judicial Circuits,” the General Assembly having power upon certification of the necessity therefor by the Supreme Court to reduce, increase or rearrange the judicial districts.

SB 49 adds to this by directing the Supreme Court submit a “suggested plan of correction” for circuit/district lines or the reallocation of judgeships. Interestingly, the plan calls for the use of two different criteria to be used

  • Appellate districts: “population only”
  • Trial districts/circuits: “populations or caseloads”

Moreover, SB 49 retains the policy that the General Assembly ultimately makes the decision to draw the lines; this a marked difference as compared to a 2013 constitutional amendment (HB 391) that would have let the Chief Justice redraw the lines as workload required.

SB 49 was approved 31-1-1 in the Senate and approved by the House State Government Committee; it is currently pending on the House floor.

Montana

HB 430 creates a judicial redistricting commission to recommend changes to district lines for the 2017 legislature. The commission would be made up of 7 members

  • 1 House or Senate member chosen jointly by majority leaders
  • 1 House or Senate member chosen jointly by minority leaders
  • 2 District Court Judges chosen by Chief Justice
  • 1 District Court Clerk chosen by clerk’s association
  • 1 County Commissioner chosen by counties association
  • 1 member of bar chosen by Bar President

In addition to a catchall provision, the commission would examine judicial redistricting using 6 factors

  1. population of the judicial districts
  2. judicial district’s weighted caseload as determined by judicial workload studies
  3. relative proportions of civil, criminal, juvenile, and family law cases
  4. extent to which special masters, alternative dispute resolution techniques, and other measures have been used
  5. distances in highway miles between county seats in existing judicial districts and any judicial districts that may be proposed by the commission
  6. impact on counties of any changes proposed in the judicial districts

HB 430 was narrowly approved by the full Montana House on a 51-49 vote on 2nd Reading on March 23. It was ultimately approved by the full House on a 54-46 vote yesterday (March 24) and is awaiting transmission to the Senate.

North Carolina

SB 226 directs the Legislative Research Commission (made up entirely of legislators) to study the state’s current trial court districts. The criteria do not mention population, instead focus on three others

  • improve the efficiency of the court system
  • provide for improved administration
  • better balance the caseloads in the various districts

SB 226 is currently in the Senate Rules Committee.

Tennessee

HB 144 was to be a bill about efiling in Tennessee courts. As amended in its entirety yesterday (March 24) it now creates a new way for Tennessee to redraw its judicial district lines. Amendment 1 to HB 144 directs the creation of a task force to recommend new judicial district lines and a joint House/Senate committee to review the proposal.

The Advisory Task Force to Review the Composition of Tennessee’s Current Judicial Districts would be made up of 13 members chosen by the House Speaker (6), Senate Speaker (6), and a joint appointment (1). The members would have to consist of

  • 3 current trial court judges, one from each grand division in the state
  • 3 current district attorneys, one from each grand division in the state
  • 3 current public defenders, one from each grand division in the state
  • 4 other members to be determined by speakers

There is no direction regarding the criteria for the new lines, other than

  • reasonable and timely access to Tennessee’s circuit, chancery, and criminal courts
  • promote the efficient utilization of publicly-funded resources allocated for the courts

The Task Force would make its report to a new Joint Legislative Committee on Judicial Redistricting made up of 5 House and 5 Senate members. The Joint Legislative Committee would remain a permanent feature in law being reconstituted every 8 years; the Advisory Task Force would have to be reenacted each time.

HB 114 as amended was approved yesterday (March 24) by the House Civil Justice Committee and referred to the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

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