KINGMAN - The Mohave Superior Court got approval from the Board of Supervisors Monday to petition the state for a seventh superior court division and add on to the courthouse in Lake Havasu City, but not without a fight over the county purse.
Nancy Mongeau, a member of the Mohave County Probation Department Community Advisory Board, read a letter detailing the organization's concerns that a lack of staffing at the county courts was impacting services to the public, especially juveniles.
A National Center for State Courts study of the judicial workload in Mohave County showed that the county really needed 10 judicial officers in order to handle the increase in case loads over the last decade, Mongeau said. It currently has eight, six superior court judges and two pro-tem commissioners.
According to information from the study, in the last decade civil case filings have increased by 87 percent, juvenile cases by 70 percent and family law cases by 18 percent. Criminal cases grew by 22 percent from 2002 to 2007 and then dropped back to 2002 levels.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles Gurtler theorized that the number of criminal filings changed because Judge Rick Williams was assigned to handle more criminal cases and a second pro-tem commissioner was added to the system.
"In light of the case filings outlined above, and the clear finding of the NSCS study, (the Community Advisory Board) is growing increasingly concerned that Mohave County is being neglected in the area of funded judicial officers, to the detriment of our community's youth," Mongeau said. "There is no good reason for Mohave County being short changed of its constitutionally entitled judicial officers."
The Arizona Constitution provides one superior court judge for every 30,000 inhabitants in a county. Mohave County has a population of more than 200,186 according to the last census. In order to get another judge, the county would have to petition the Governor's Office for approval. Then the governor would investigate the matter and appoint a judge if necessary. That judge would have to run for office in the next election in order to keep the seat.
"Other counties with both similar population numbers and similar filings numbers have far more in the way of judicial resources than Mohave County," Mongeau said.
She pointed to Yavapai and Yuma counties.
Yavapai has a population of 211,000 and has 10 judicial positions. Yuma County has a population of 195,000 and has nine positions.
She also pointed out that Mohave County judges have to travel between Kingman, Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City in order to hold civil, family and juvenile court proceedings. This decreases the amount of time the judges have per case even further.
Mongeau also pointed to the new county jail and said it didn't make financial sense to incarcerate more people and not provide the court with the support to handle those new cases.
Board Chairman Buster Johnson questioned Mongeau and Gurtler.
Gurtler explained that the previous presiding superior court judge had moved all of the juvenile cases to one judge several years ago. When Gurtler took over the position, he noticed that criminal cases were starting to back up in the system. He reassigned the judges to handle the backflow.
Now domestic and juvenile cases are starting to be impacted, Gurtler said. In some child custody cases, parents are only given 15 minutes to argue why they should have custody of their child. The court doesn't have the time or resources to question the parents further to determine if changing custody is the best thing for the child.
"It's simply wrong," he said. With enough time, a court could dig into the issues and order a parent to anger management classes, substance abuse classes. Doing so would decrease and avoid a number dependency cases where the children are removed from both parents.
The county courts really need another superior court division, Gurtler said. All of the judges are handling more than a typical case load and there is no one to take the overflow. The new judge, if approved, would be assigned to handle dependency and juvenile cases.
The courts have the money in their budget to pay for an additional judge and keep its promise to the county to cut 3 percent of its spending, he said. The money would come from a few unfilled positions, a fund controlled by the Mohave County Clerk of Courts Office and a state grant specifically for child support cases.
"We cannot do less for our constituents, but we will do less for ourselves," Gurtler said.
County Financial Services Director John Timko was called to the microphone to explain the impact on the county's budget. He said he didn't have a problem with asking for a new judge but wanted to correct some comments made by Gurtler.
One of the positions Gurtler spoke of was cut from last year's budget and no longer existed in the courts' budget, Timko said. So that funding would have to come from the county's general fund.
He also asked why the courts hadn't applied for the child support grant several years ago.
It wasn't fair for the courts to ask for additional money from the county's general fund, when it already had more than $1 million in non-general fund money from the state it could use, Timko said. It also makes it more difficult to ask the Sheriff's Office to cut more than $1 million from his budget.
Gurtler responded that the position that was cut from last year's budget was supposed to be a temporary measure to help balance the budget. The position should have been returned to this year's budget.
"We're already behind the eight ball and we're to the point where we're going to be scratching at the eight ball unless we turn it around," Gurtler said.
Deputy County Manger of Criminal Justice Services Dana Hlavac was filling in for County Manager Ron Walker. He recommended changing one of the county's two pro-tem commissioners into a new judge and possibly saving the county $68,000.
The county has to pay the full salaries of each commissioner, but it splits the cost of superior court judges with the state, he explained. It could apply for a grant to hire another commissioner.
Johnson recommended waiting until the Board started to discuss the final county budget.
Timko pointed out that the courts weren't looking to fund a new judge until January.
Hlavac pointed out that it could take more than six months for the Governor's Office to approve the county's petition.
Johnson asked about the possibility of night courts.
Gurtler said the county would still need additional judges.
Johnson was leery of having another judge appointed to the bench. Appointees always seem to have an advantage when the next election comes around, he said.
He also pointed out that people would still have to travel to Kingman for some court services. Why couldn't each judge handle the criminal, juvenile and civil cases in their division? He asked.
The state requires additional training for each type of case, Gurtler explained. Requiring all of the judges to take those classes would empty the courthouse for several days each year.
Johnson noted that La Paz County only had one superior court judge.
Gurtler explained that all of the cases that were potential conflict of interest for that judge were handled by Mohave County. That judge was also required by state law to retire next year, which means Mohave County will have to handle that case load while the state looks for a new judge.
Johnson asked why the courts couldn't transport prisoners to their hearings in Bullhead City or Lake Havasu City or use video conferencing.
The cost and danger of transporting prisoners was too great, Gurtler said. The courts do use the video conferencing, but defendants have a constitutional right to be present in the courtroom.
County Supervisor Tom Sockwell said he had heard from both sides and felt that courts could handle the expense of a new judge without greatly impacting the county's general fund.
The Board voted 2 to 1 to approve the courts' request to petition the state for a new judge. Johnson was opposed.
The discussion then turned to approving the hiring of an architect to draw up plans to expand the Lake Havasu Court facility.
Johnson asked some of the same budgetary questions and recommended waiting until the Board started the final budget process to make a decision on the issue.
Gurtler said the county would need to expand the building in the future and would need the plans at some point. The department had the money now, why not do it now?
The Board again voted 2 to 1 in favor of hiring an architect, with Johnson casting the only "no" vote.