Editorial: The case for fewer judges in Michigan

On January 19, 2011, in News Stories, by bobyoung

By The Grand Rapids Press Editorial Board

In 2007 then-Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Clifford Taylor called for the elimination of some judgeships to save money. Solid evidence, including shifting population and declining case loads, supported that recommendation. But the Legislature and then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm failed to act. In fact the number of judges across Michigan grew, even as Michigan population shrank and its budget cried out for cutting.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young

Newly elected Chief Justice Robert Young has revived the call for judicial right-sizing. The state faces a continuing money crisis. If “everything is on the table,” as lawmakers frequently say, then the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder should put Justice Young’s proposal into action.

The plan will generate considerable resistance, as always happens with attempts to pare back judgeships. Communities view the proposed down-sizing as a threat to their status and prestige. Interests will inevitably arise to protest. But in a state that lost population in the recent Census count, this is an obvious place to save.

Mr. Young wants to eliminate judges in circuit and district courts, as well as some at the Michigan Court of Appeals. In addition, he proposes consolidating some districts to maximize resources.

Every two years, the State Court Administrative Office, which is overseen by the Supreme Court, reviews judgeships and makes recommendations. That report is due later this year. The office’s analysis from 2009 identifies 14 trial court judge positions that are no longer needed, and four Appeals Court posts that should go.

The proposed reductions range across the state. In our area, the report suggests eliminating three district judgeships, one each in Lake and Mason counties; Kalamazoo County; and Benzie and Manistee counties. The 2009 report recommends no changes for Kent and Ottawa counties. Any reductions would occur through attrition.

There are currently 28 Appeals Court judges. The report suggests going to 24.
The workload on the Appeals Court has dropped from 7,951 filings in 2006 to 6,936 in 2008. The court handles these filings in two ways: through orders, short statements ruling on requests; and through longer and thoroughly researched opinions – the heavy lifting of appeals courts everywhere. Opinions have declined from 3,494 in 2006 to 2,903 in 2008.

Justice Young has not yet made specific numerical recommendations. The upcoming judicial resources report, which he hopes will be out this summer, should provide a basis for that. But he doesn’t see things getting better than they were two years ago and he wants the Legislature to figure these reductions into the budget.

The justice estimates the savings to the state budget to be more than $4 million on a combined court budget of about $150 million. The savings to local communities would be even greater.
Every local judge costs the state about $160,000 for salary and benefits. Counties, cities and townships cover other costs which Mr. Young estimates at about $300,000 per judgeship. Local communities need to save, too.

The state savings is not huge when you compare it to a now confirmed $1.8 billion deficit. But every dollar helps. In the state’s progressive belt-tightening, every branch of government should be able to find places to save.

Chief Justice Young has offered to put his branch of government on the chopping block. The Legislature and governor should comply.