By The Grand Rapids Press Editorial Board
June 9, 2011

That mantra in Michigan right now — reinvention — should include the court system. A good blueprint for change can be found in a report released this spring by the State Bar of Michigan’s Judicial Crossroads Task Force.

The report offers some recommendations on how to restructure an antiquated justice system to meet needs. Those recommendations include a reduction and redistribution of judges, a statewide technology system, a consolidation of court functions and a revamping of the broken method of defending the poor.

The aim is to save money — something judges and lawyers understand has to be done — better serve the public and provide for the needs of a shifting and aging population. The goals mesh with those of Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young, who has advocated shrinking the number of judges. That point, in particular, should be heeded by the Legislature, which in the past has been reticent to recommend judicial downsizing.

Each judge costs the state about $175,000 a year. Local taxpayers pay about $300,000 on top of that. Recommendations due in August from the State Court Administrative Office — an arm of the Supreme Court — will likely confirm that some parts of the state have too many judges. Past reports from the office have said as much, though changes have not been made because lawmakers typically protect courts in their own districts.

Over the next five to seven years, about 50 percent of the state’s judiciary will retire. That will provide an opportunity to assess and decrease the number of judges through attrition. The last Court Administrative Office report, issued in 2009, recommend Michigan shed 14 of its nearly 600 trial court judges and reduce by four the 28 Appeals Court judgeships.

The next report may recommend even deeper cuts. Michigan lost population over the past decade. Considerable population shifting has occurred within the state. Some areas don’t need the judges they have, based on caseload and the number of people being served.

Technology in the courts is outdated and uncoordinated. Lawyers and citizens travel to and from buildings to file papers and read hard-copy files that should be accessible remotely via secure computers. Defendants are dragged to and from court in police cars when some of their proceedings could be conducted via video conferencing. Translation for a growing number of non-English speaking defendants could be handled with greater efficiency and uniformity through videoconferencing, too. Changing these antiquated technologies would require investment. But it would be a good investment over time because of increased convenience and reduced burdens for court employees.

The report points out the duplication in the current court system and the opportunities to consolidate functions. Barry County consolidated court functions and was able to save up to 15 percent on costs.

One key recommendation that should not be overlooked by lawmakers is the need to fundamentally change the system for defending poor people. The U.S. Constitution grants indigent defendants the right to representation. However, a county-by-county system in the state leaves the quality of that representation far too dependent on local whims. That costs taxpayers money through increased appeals and proceedings, and is far more costly to wrongly convicted defendants. The report recommends statewide standards for indigent public defense. The Legislature should enact such a system.

Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers have undertaken reforms in education, local government and other spheres. This report makes a compelling case for bringing the same judgment to bear on Michigan’s courts.

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