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Legal community defends Justice Court
By TERRI HARBER
Baker County Commissioners heard from several local law professionals on Wednesday about the importance of the Baker Justice Court.
It is “the quickest, lowest cost justice available anywhere,” said retired Justice of the Peace Larry Cole.
Funding decreases that began because of HB 2712, which was approved during the 2011 Legislative session, will affect these local courts gradually as the 2012-13 fiscal year approaches.
Payments of fines and other fees occurs after cases are resolved. Cases that originated before Jan. 1 — when the reallocation of more funds to the state began — will take time to get to court and be decided.
The Justice Court could lose as much as $180,000 in fees each year to the state once the legislation is fully in effect. That could take up to 18 months, Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. said.
Cole said the legislation appears to have been approved because there was “somebody asleep in the backroom.”
Both alternatives would be less hands-on, according to attorneys and judges who spoke to the commissioners.
A citation wouldn’t allow for contact with the offender. And the Circuit Court, a higher-level court that also handles felony cases, would end up with a heavier case load. This would make it more difficult for the judge to communicate with defendants and their legal representatives.
Among those who addressed commissioners Wednesday are Robert Whitnah and Damien Yervasi, both local attorneys who are candidates for the Justice of the Peace, which oversees the Justice Court.
The two other candidates — Mike Downing and Steve Bogart — also attended Wednesday’s meeting.
Whitnah said a drastic cutback in cases heard in Justice Court, or its closure, could affect the community’s overall “quality of life.”
Moving misdemeanor cases to Circuit Court would result in a “longer time between when someone steals a candy bar and when they are accountable for it.” Whitnah said.
“This is perhaps the most active Justice Court in the state,” said Yervasi, who has served as a fill-in Justice of the Peace over the past year or so.
His wife, Lise Yervasi, is the elected Justice of the Peace.
“It’s not fair to look at this in a pure dollars and cents fashion” because of the services the Justice Court provides to the community, Damien Yervasi said.
The Justice Court not only tries misdemeanor offenses, it also hears such matters as small claims and traffic cases.
There’s “significant benefit to have people adjudicate their claims quickly,” Yervasi said.
That includes landlord-tenant issues or other situations where business matters need to be resolved.
Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter said that if the local Justice Court were closed, the added caseload for his court “would be nasty.”
Moving misdemeanor cases alone would add up to 500 new cases to the Circuit Court schedule. And the court’s support staff is smaller than it used to be and likely will continue to decrease in size because of state budgetary concerns, Baxter said.
The new cases also would affect civil matters already requiring Circuit Court attention, such as divorces.
More cases awaiting court time also would be a burden for women who are awaiting child support payments, for example, because their problems will take longer to resolve, said attorney Krischele Whitnah.
“I think we’ll have really problems if we lose the efficiency” that comes from having the Justice Court and the impact will be felt outside the court system, such as among people who receive various government services, she said.
District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff said that he’d rather that the Justice Court “not go away.” But if it did, his office would have to learn to manage without it.
“It would affect our ability to prosecute cases, to get the effect we want,” Shirtcliff said. “If there’s no other choice, we’d do our best.”
This might mean finding incentives to resolve cases more quickly, such as “plea bargaining we’d rather not do,” he said.
There’s a proposal that would help offset the funding loss by restoring a portion of the money for local justice courts now being reallocated to the state.
Called LC 101 (the name likely will change once state legislators convene Feb. 1 for their month-long session) it would bring back part of the money funneled away from these local courts because of HB 2712.
Warner said he plans to testify in favor of the bill.
This or any other remedying legislation would have to be approved during this year’s session to minimize the effect on court budgets.
Warner also reiterated his concern that the short legislative session could end without this situation being resolved.
The county can’t actually do much until it’s known whether state legislators will take action to offset HB 2712.
If the local Justice Court ends up shutting down, it can’t be resurrected and returned to Baker City, also the county seat. The city operated a municipal court until the early 1980s that handled the same cases the Justice Court now deals with.
Other options include scaling back the Justice Court, or the county subsidizing it with general fund dollars.
Salary for the new Justice of the Peace will have to be determined soon because the county can’t lower a judge’s pay once that court official has been sworn-in.
It could end up being a part-time position if the Justice Court operations end up being sharply curtailed, Warner said.
Lise Yervasi’s term ends Dec. 31.
If one of the four candidates receives more than 50 percent of the votes in the May primary, that person will replace Yervasi.
If none of the four candidates exceeds 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election Nov. 6.
The Justice Court currently has a small surplus added to Baker County’s general fund of about $33,000 in the 2010-11 fiscal year budget. Cities also receive some revenue for fines and tickets issued by their officers.