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VOL. 11 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 21, 2018

State Weighted Caseload Study Shows Two More Judges Needed Locally

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County’s court system – civil and criminal – is down about two judges, according to the Tennessee Comptroller’s annual report on weighted caseloads.

Shelby County courts combined are two full-time judges short of the case workload they face, according to a new Tennessee Comptroller's study. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The report, required by state law since 1997, calculates the number of judges needed to handle different kinds of cases.

For the 30th Judicial District, which is all of Shelby County, the report, released in March and based on data from the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, shows 0.86 more criminal judges are needed and about a third of a civil judge and approximately a third of a domestic relations judge.

Shelby County is one of four judicial districts in the state that shows a need for one or more full-time judges. Statewide there is a deficit of almost 10 full-time judges.

“I think that we take them as a starting point,” Criminal Court Judge Bobby Carter said of the numbers.

Carter is the administrative judge for the 10 Shelby County Criminal Court judges.

“I think that they show we are very busy here in Shelby County. I think it’s pretty hard and fast evidence of the fact that we have a significant number of criminal issues to be dealt with,” he said. “That’s a lot of assets, but we keep 10 of them pretty busy and could use more. … I don’t know that I would base a major decision solely on those numbers without further investigation.”

Josh Spickler, leader of the criminal justice reform group Just City, has a different view but a similar general conclusion.

“That may be true from a pure numbers perspective, but I think we have to look at why, in the criminal system at least – why there is a greater demand for judges,” he said.

Spickler spoke critically of the criminal courts caseload.

“We’ve got some upward pressure on our jail population right now,” he said. “We’ve got some pressure on judges to provide more trial settings because the district attorney continues to pursue policies that are not evidence-based and are shown to be ineffective.”

Carter says it’s a function of Shelby County’s size.

“We have this urban, big-city concentration,” he said. “Our crime is concentrated as well and probably much more prevalent than in an area that is sparsely populated. You jam that many people together you have more criminal business to handle.”

He also says there is a difference in how judges in a big city use their time and how judges in rural areas use their time.

“We probably spend less time per case than many of our rural brothers and sisters because we don’t have the time available to spend,” Spickler said. “If I had all day to spend on a case, I could probably spend all day on it. But I don’t. I’ve got to get it moved and handled in the time that is available and go to the next one.”

The report provides a window into the flow of cases through the different courts and the

difficulty in making precise calculations.

Until 2013, the formula included workers compensation cases. Those cases were excluded because with tort reform in Tennessee, the state Judicial Conference anticipated there would be a drop that would make them irrelevant to calculating caseload. That hasn’t proven to be the case. Although such cases can no longer be filed in state courts, judges continue to work their way through a backlog of the cases pending before the July 1, 2014 cut off. The workers compensation cases returned to the caseload formula for fiscal year 2017.

The numbers for criminal cases in Shelby County in the Tennessee Comptroller’s report are an average over three fiscal years, from fiscal 2013-2014 to 2015-2016. Shelby County’s criminal caseload was estimated because of the ongoing transition to a new case management system.

The formula also factors in how long it takes courts to resolve certain types of cases for specific offenses and claims.

The calculation is done by multiplying the total number of cases filed by the average minutes per case for each type of case, which results in the case weight. That case weight is then divided by the annual availability of judges for case-specific work.

The calculation also uses a weighted model that is supposed to approximate judicial workload and the need for judicial resources.

Criminal Court Judge John Campbell, who serves on the committee that sets criteria for the study, says the numbers have some limits.

“I don’t think you say that absolutely they are a good snapshot of what’s going on across the board. We’re depending on the clerks to enter the data correctly and call the case the right thing,” he said. “They are the ones that make that decision. It’s important because that’s how the General Assembly is going to allocate judicial resources. As far as the picture it sends, it’ll definitely show that Shelby County has tremendous need for judicial resources in criminal court.”

Carter said the caseload study shows a few more criminal court judges could be justified along with maybe a reduction of one or two Circuit Court judges. The county’s Circuit Court judges as a whole have never been happy about the results of the weighted caseload study and in 20 years of the study have routinely quarreled with its conclusions.

But Carter said there are some “very preliminary, very casual conversations” between criminal and Circuit Court judges.

“They have indicated a willingness to discuss the possibility of them taking on some of the matters that we have handled (in criminal court), but which are civil in nature,” he said. That could include habitual motor vehicle offender cases and post-conviction matters of a civil nature that come from criminal convictions.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, a total of 205,600 cases were filed in state courts across Tennessee, an increase of 0.53 percent from the previous fiscal year.

Criminal cases statewide accounted for 45 percent of the cases, domestic relations cases for 30 percent and civil cases for 25 percent.

Including the three-year average criminal case growth rate for Shelby County, the report estimates there were 23,152 cases – civil, criminal and domestic – filed in Shelby County in fiscal year 2017, an increase of 742 (3.3 percent) from the previous fiscal year.

Most of that increase, 688 cases, were criminal cases with a total of 15,049 in the criminal category of an overall caseload of 23,152.

The Shelby County caseload shows for criminal courts, class C, D and E felonies are by far the largest category in the caseload at 6,915, followed by other petitions and motions including writs at 2,113, and then probation violation cases at 2,012.

The most serious felonies short of first-degree murder, class A and B felonies, were 1,949 followed by misdemeanor cases at 1,216. The study showed 252 first-degree murder cases.

In civil court, the study shows damages and tort claims were the largest category with 2,127 cases followed by other general civil cases at 1,582.

For domestic relations matters, divorces with children were the largest category at 1,412 followed by divorces without children at 1,187.

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