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County's plan: Half-time Justice Court
By TERRI HARBER
A possible plan to keep Justice Court operating will be discussed during the next Baker County commissioners meeting.
The meeting begins at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at the Baker County Courthouse, 1995 Third St.
Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. is seeking public opinion about a concept that would cut the cost of running the court. It would cut the hours of operation by permanently moving misdemeanor cases to the Baker County Circuit Court, and make the incoming justice of the peace position half-time.
Having the justice of the peace work only about 20 hours a week and reducing that person's benefits to a commensurate level would save the county about $50,000 per year, Warner said.
Permanently removing the misdemeanor caseload from the Justice Court also would result in the transfer of cost to the Circuit Court for defending indigent offenders. That's $70,000 a year to handle at least 300 cases, Warner said.
Some misdemeanors have been shifted to the Circuit Court over the past several months to help Justice of the Peace Lise Yervasi, who's been ill. There are substitute justices of the peace who serve when Yervasi can't. Limits apply in the number of times they can step in, however.
Yervasi's husband, Damien, a Baker City attorney, is a volunteer substitute. He also is one of four people seeking the justice of the peace position. The other candidates are Mike Downing, Steve Bogart and Robert Whitnah.
Lise Yervasi's term ends Dec. 31, 2012.
Expanding the redistribution of misdemeanor cases to the Circuit Court and making it permanent would have a lesser effect on the system-wide case flow than would have happened a few years ago because the courts have been moving in that direction, Warner said.
The district attorney's office also would be affected because more of these cases likely would be reduced to citation offenses, for example. District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff said last week he would prefer the Justice Court remain intact but that his office would learn to manage no matter what the county decides to do.
Warner said that being more aggressive about collecting outstanding fines and fees also would help close the anticipated financial gap.
About 20 percent of fines and fees have gone unpaid during the past three years, he said.
Warner also wants the county to look at other ways to reduce costs in the Justice Court.
Options besides Warner's preferred half-time plan are to close the Justice Court completely, or subsidizing it from the county's general fund to keep the court full-time.
Several members of the local legal community spoke to county commissioners last week, including two of the justice of the peace candidates. All were in support of keeping the Justice Court open and intact, if possible.
Residents haven't been making their feelings known, however, Warner said.
He encourages people to call him with questions or ideas. His office number is 541-523-8200.
The Justice Court handles a variety of matters — traffic, boating, wildlife, misdemeanors as well as small claims and civil cases where damages won't exceed $7,500.
Though he wasn't at the commission hearing last week, attorney Bob Moon said he believes a reduced Justice Court would "clog" the Circuit Court and, ultimately, result in a heavier burden for the state.
"It works well to have minor cases in Justice Court," said Moon. "But I understand the realities."
Moon also had some concerns for the future. Some cases might end up invalid simply because they aren't adjudicated within two years — as is required. And if there are too many cases overall in the Circuit Court, a second judge might need to be brought in to handle the flow.
Another Baker City attorney, Milo Pope, said he believes the Circuit Court "already is stretched pretty thin" and that it doesn't "have room for anything more."
Pope is himself a former Circuit Court judge.
The Justice Court with its broad combination of cases is "an integral part of our community," Pope said. "It's the people's court."
The legislation approved during the 2011 state Legislative Session, HB 2712, reallocated a significant portion of money from fees and fines back to the state instead of to local justice courts.
The change took effect Jan. 1.
Some of the money lost as a result of HB 2712 might be restored with a legislative proposal created for the upcoming legislative session called LC 101. Warner isn't confident, though, that lawmakers will get to that during the month-long session that starts Feb. 1.
The Justice Court has brought a small profit to the county in the past: about $33,000 in the 2010-2011 budget. The funding loss to the county could reach $180,000 annually after about 18 months with HB 2712 and other smaller reductions that will affect the court if it remains as is, Warner said.