Wyoming Constitutional Amendment C: What exactly is “chambers business”?

Wyoming HJR 1 (of 2011) / Constitutional Amendment C , on the ballot this November, would eliminate an existing provision that district court commissioners may act only 1) in the absence of the district judge from the county or 2) where it is improper for the district judge to act.

Article 5, Section 14. District courts generally; commissioners. The legislature shall provide by law for the appointment by the several district courts of one or more district court commissioners (who shall be persons learned in the law) in each organized county in which a district court is holden, such commissioners shall have authority to perform such chamber business in the absence of the district judge from the county or upon his written statement filed with the papers, that it is improper for him to act, as may be prescribed by law, to take depositions and perform such other duties, and receive such compensation as shall be prescribed by law.

In this first look at Wyoming’s Amendment C I’ll take a look at what exactly is “chamber business”?

Wyoming’s Article 5, Section 14 is almost identical to Article VI, Section 14 of the 1879 California Constitution.

The Legislature may also provide for the appointment, by the several superior courts, of one or more commissioners in their respective counties, or cities and counties, with authority to perform chamber business of the judges of the superior courts, to take depositions, and to perform such other business connected with the administration of justice as may be prescribed by law.

As the 1966 California Constitution Revision Commission noted, the term “chamber business” wasn’t particularly clear.

The existing section [14] raises the  problem of defining ‘chamber business’ since many ‘judicial’ duties can be performed in chambers. To indicate the subordinate nature of duties that officers such as commissioners should be allowed to perform, the phrase ‘subordinate judicial duties’ was used.” (Cal. Const. Revision Com., Proposed Revision (1966) p. 99., as cited in Gomez v. Superior Court, 54 Cal. 4th 293, 305-306 (Cal. 2012))

The phrase was amended out of the California Constitution and replaced with “subordinate judicial duties” in 1966.

The Wyoming Board of Judicial Policy and Administration produced a press release last week to give more details.

The purpose of Constitutional Amendment C is to enhance the efficiency of the district court by removing two obstacles to the court’s use of court commissioners. The state constitution currently allows court commissioners appointed by the district judge to conduct “chambers business”, and it grants the court commissioner authority to act in the absence of the district judge from the county. However, much has changed in the operation of district courts since the 1890 when our constitution was adopted. The statutes impose more duties and deadlines that can be difficult to fulfill promptly when the district court is conducting trials or other business. The amendment would give the court commissioner authority to act in matters beyond “chambers business,” such as emergency hearings in mental health and juvenile cases, where the district judge is within the county, but is otherwise occupied, such as in a jury trial. This would allow the district court to more promptly act on matters of great importance to members of the public.