Bar News - July 20, 2016
Court News: Courts to Request More Judicial Staffing and Caseload Study
By: Kristen Senz
The NH Superior Court and Circuit Court benches currently have 21 and 32 full-time judges, respectively, putting the Superior Court close to capacity while the Circuit Court is well below the 45 judges authorized by the Legislature.
Recognizing a need for more judicial resources in the family division, Chief Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly says the Circuit Court will seek funding for at least three more full-time positions. In addition, he said, the Judicial Branch will propose conducting a new weighted caseload study, to update the data used to allocate judge time.
The Superior Court is currently capped by the NH Legislature at 22 judges. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau said recently that she hopes to see a 22nd judge nominated later this year. “This is the first time in many, many years that we’re at 21, so that’s a good thing,” she said.
To assess the manageable caseload for each judge, Nadeau said, she uses a mix of statistics and knowledge about the strengths of each judge. “My assessment right now is that a caseload of 600 cases per judge is probably doable, but a challenge,” she said. “Some judges are under that and some are over that.”
The Superior Court has experienced a 15 percent statewide average increase in criminal cases in a single year, Nadeau said, due largely to the opioid addiction epidemic. Analyzing detailed case statistics is difficult using the Court’s case management system, but anecdotally, she said, “If we have 20 arraignments, 19 of them are heroin-related.”
Excluding the one anticipated nomination, the Superior Court bench is expected to stay as it is for the next few years, after six new judges were appointed over the last five years.
The Legislature’s authorization of 45 full-time judges for the Circuit Court is based on the total number of judges that were sitting in the district, probate and family courts prior to the creation of the Circuit Court. The court at that time also had 29 sitting part-time judges, of which it has 13 today, according to Kelly. Kelly said the Court’s next proposed budget will include at least three more full-time Circuit Court judge positions, with the goal being to seat three judges with prior family law experience by this time next year. Kelly said he would like to see two or three more part-time judges confirmed as well.
The Court meanwhile expects at least three Circuit Court judges to retire by early 2017.
To determine necessary levels of judicial resources, the court relies on a caseload study performed more than 10 years ago that applied different weights to different case types based on average times to disposition and other factors.
Kelly said the Court plans to ask the Legislature next year for about $100,000 to complete an updated caseload study. It is unclear what the study might find, however, as specialized court dockets and other innovations, such as pre-trial conferences in plea-by-mail motor vehicle cases, have removed many cases from local court dockets.
“The beauty of doing it now is that it will begin to take into account some of the changes,” Kelly said of the study. “We’ve hesitated on doing it, because we’re right in the middle of doing e-Court, so we don’t know how much that’s going to impact judge time. It may not impact it a lot; it has more of an impact on staff time.”
In the meantime, Kelly said, Court administrative judges are working to reduce delays by monitoring orders. “Our goal is to have every order out within 30 days of the last hearing in the case, and in the majority of cases that happens,” he said. “We’re looking at it at 30 (days), and when we see it on the 60-day list, that’s when we’ll reach out to the judge.”
Asked about concerns attorneys have voiced over not getting timely orders in family law cases with emergency circumstances, Kelly said that shouldn’t be happening. “There’s no reason in the world why things like that can’t be handled and can’t be put to the front of the list, and typically they are,” he said.
Attorneys who experience delays are encouraged to follow the policy the court laid out last year for addressing complaints, which involves first contacting the local court clerk.