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Bar News - April 15, 2011

Circuit Court Is on a Fast Track

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April 20 update: The NH Senate has joined the House in passing the Circuit Court bill, HB 609. Bill now awaits Gov. Lynch's action. Meanwhile Circuit Court administrators are interviewing 80 candidates for clerk and deputy clerk positions in the soon-to-be Circuit Court. Layoffs required by the state budget for the judicial branch will have to be made by May 11 to take effect in early June.

The Judicial Branch is steaming full speed ahead to combine the administrations of the family division and the probate and district courts, anticipating speedy approval of the legislation creating the Circuit Court.

HB 609, a 15-page bill that outlines the reorganization, passed the NH House on a voice-vote. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Senate lawmakers had few questions about the plan and gave assurances they would act quickly to move the bill for floor action.

If all goes as planned, the reorganization will be completed as of July 1, 2011 with streamlined management in place for the Circuit Court, divided into 10 circuits, by county. (See map below.) Bowing to what court officials say are political realities, no court locations will be closed, although some part-time courts may only be staffed when court is in session there.

A major aspect of the reorganization is eliminating duplicative layers of management. Instead of each probate, family and district court location having a clerk (or register) and a deputy clerk, the number of management-level court clerk or register positions, currently at 52, and 66 deputy clerk/register positions will be winnowed down to 51 circuit court management positions (clerks and deputy clerks). Current clerks, deputy clerks and registers in the family, probate and district courts have been invited to apply for circuit court management positions. Under the current scenario, candidates will be interviewed and decisions made on the management positions by the beginning of May, said District and Family Division Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly.

A complicating factor is the existence of elected Registers of Probate, called for in the NH Constitution, who currently serve as clerks in the administration of the probate court. The Circuit Court plan calls for reducing the salary for the Registers to a nominal amount, and shifting their administrative responsibilities to the circuit court clerk appointed in that county. The current office-holder is eligible to apply for the circuit court position, Kelly said. Thus, the circuit court reorganization expects to bypass the political challenge of eliminating the constitutional position of Register of Probate.

The subject-matter jurisdictions of probate, district and family will become "divisions" of each circuit court, one for each county. Judge Kelly believes that administrative efficiencies will result within each courthouse. Staffs of the various subject-matter divisions (probate, district or family) will be cross-trained to be able to pitch in when the workload for one division is heaviest; as well, the circuit court will be a statewide court and staff can be redeployed as necessary in other circuits.

Judges now in the specific jurisdictions will continue to preside over cases in their divisions and will undergo a certification process to be eligible to hear cases in the other divisions similar to the process now used to train district and probate judges to hear family division cases. At legislative hearings, judicial officials have said in smaller counties, one judge will eventually be able to handle any type of case, which will cut down on the amount of traveling and substituting now required. However, that will take time: existing judges will not be compelled to undergo certification in additional divisions but will be encouraged to do so. As new judges are appointed, they will be appointed as circuit court judges who will be expected to handle all types of matters.

The Circuit Court legislation also phases out the marital master positions. The bill calls for converting the limited-duty marital master positions to judicial positions, "providing that sufficient funds have been appropriated" for salaries and benefits. Replacing (or converting) masters with judges is slated to occur "upon the completion of the current term" of existing marital masters, according to the amended version of HB 609. Marital masters, appointed by the courts, serve for five-year terms. However, those marital masters whose terms expire in the next budget cycle will probably not lose their jobs immediately, judicial officials believe. A provision in the budget bill passed by the House limits the number of full-time judges in the courts to no more than the number of judges in place at the end of the current fiscal year in June 2011, which is expected to block the conversion provision from taking effect.

Circuit Court Sites

Some sites will be part-time or satellite operations. Probate court records will remain in the county seat of each circuit, but probate division hearings will likely take place at multiple circuit court locations.

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