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County court braces for more cuts

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Robert D. Herndon is the presiding judge who manages Clackamas County Circuit Court's budget, which is down to $11.9 million annually down from $16.6 million in 2008.State cuts to Clackamas County Court budget, now down to $11.9 million from $16.6 million in 2008, have had devastating effects on local access to justice.

Examples are numerous:

Domestic-violence survivors in Clackamas County now often have to wait 100 days to get a judge to order a spouse to let them visit with their kids, nearly double the average wait time from 2008.

In that year, someone from out of state who needed proof of his or her not-guilty verdict in a Clackamas County trial could mail in a request with a 25-cent-per-page payment and expect to get the document back within three weeks. Now that person waits three months, or hires a local private investigator to track down the document.

After two board members illegally staged a political takeover, a local water-district governing board remained in limbo for at least a month before a document came through from a judge officially nullifying the action. Five years ago, officials could be back on their feet with a civil judgment in less than a week.

For Robert D. Herndon, the presiding judge who manages the Clackamas County Circuit Court, these types of delays are just a sampling of the problems that Oregon legislators have caused by reducing Fifth Judicial District’s budget. Now, the Oregon Legislature is considering another 3 percent cut effective July 1, which would mean that the local court system would have to survive on $11.6 million annually through 2015.

“We collectively as a judicial branch have really started to think that the cuts that we’ve suffered have had a severe impact on access to justice and public safety,” Herndon said.

Cuts have torn through the court’s nonunionized employee group, bringing 2008’s 110 positions now down to 80, assuming no one is out on leave. Nine mandatory furlough days resulted in an almost 10 percent cut in pay, and court employees are looking for work elsewhere. A record 23 of the remaining county-court employees left their jobs last year, and the high staff turnover (about double the average of the previous four years) has resulted in losses of institutional knowledge and in decreased efficiency due to more frequent staff-training sessions.

“Unlike other state-funded agencies, we don’t have any road projects or capital improvements we can defer,” Herndon said. “When we’re underfunded, we have to just not do some things or do things in ways that they shouldn’t be done.”

Asked about the court’s hardships, state Rep. Brent Barton (D-Oregon City) responded that he “absolutely” agrees with the Clackamas County Court’s opinion that further cuts would have a considerable effect on access to justice and public safety.

“The rule of law is the first duty of government and is fundamental to civilized society,” Barton said. “Every issue that goes before the court is affected by the budget crisis, whether it be domestic violence, child-custody resolution or addiction services.”

Finding efficiencies

Clackamas County Court has limited scheduled public access hours from 45 to 30 hours a week so that its staff can process all the pleadings. But there have been several periods when court staffers are so far behind that Herndon will shut down the building to the public for a couple hours.

“Nothing says closed for business like a closed courthouse,” Barton said. “Businesses will not invest in Clackamas County if they cannot enforce their rights, be it property, contracts or intellectual property.”

The state mandates that courts expedite certain types of hearings, but case hearings having to be held within 14 days or less are some of the fastest-growing in the county. Stalking orders are up 14 percent, restraining orders are up 21 percent, and landlord/tenant eviction hearings are up 24 percent.

“If the Legislature gives us one more mandated thing to do, we’ve going to have to quit doing some other things,” Herndon said. “We got very creative with saving money in every way we can, but there’s no more fluff to cut.”

Clackamas County Court already has outsourced its technological services and implemented procedures to reduce the amount of paper it needs to print.

Last year, when a clerk entered the billionth item, yes, 1 billion, into the aging computer system, which is not user-friendly even when working properly, it crashed the entire system. In December 2016, Clackamas County will be one of the later counties in Oregon to upgrade its outdated system so that all public files can be effectively searched from outside of the courthouse.

“All branches of government are going to be smaller, so we have to have technology to do it,” Herndon said. “We already did the downsizing part of it, and now we’ve got to get the technology on board.”

As a practicing attorney, Barton watched Clackamas County Court get more efficient when the recession hit.

“There is only so much that can be done before affecting public safety and the administration of justice,” he said. “Although we always have a duty to pursue additional efficiencies, the fact is that Clackamas County Court has been cutting into the bone for several years.”

Everyone ‘equal’ before law

The court’s 15 percent increase in workload lately is largely due to civil cases being up 22 percent and to “self-represented people making unnecessary filings” according to Herndon. Although he appreciates new state laws increasing access to justice through that self-representation, he wants the Legislature to know how it affects courthouse staff.

“The volume of pleadings that are filed in our court is staggering, and so much of it is from self-represented folks,” he said. “They’re often wanting someone to practice law for them, and the staff can’t do that. A family law coordinator can assist but she can’t cross the line in terms of telling. So, practically with every civil case, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving that requires a lot of judicial intervention to occur to shepherd them to the point that they’re ready to go to trial.”

Barton countered that citizen access to justice is “fundamental” to the U.S.

“The courtroom is the only place left where everyone stands equal before the law, which is certainly not the case in the Legislature,” he said. “Our judicial system filters out frivolous filings in many ways, which means that an increase in unnecessary filings does not drain court resources proportionately.”

Each legislative session, the Oregon Judicial Department’s budget comes toward the end of June as a very small portion of the overall budget, so Herndon advocates that OJD’s budget should come earlier in the session so that it’s not squeezed with other budgetary distractions. Barton points out that OJD is part of the overall public-safety budget, which includes the Department of Corrections, Oregon Youth Authority, Oregon State Police and other vital services for Barton.

“The public-safety budget is almost always one of the last things voted on by the Legislature because the debate surrounding the Corrections budget is always contentious, especially in hard economic times,” Barton said. “Given that DOC is by far the largest line item in the public-safety budget, what happens to DOC necessarily affects the other agencies in that budget.”

Town halls scheduled

Joint town hall with state Sen. Alan Olsen and Rep. Brent Barton on bipartisanship in the Legislature from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, at the John Adams Fire Station, 624 Seventh St., Oregon City.

Town hall with Barton and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler on jobs and Oregon’s economy from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Operating Engineers Local 701, 555 E. First St., Gladstone.

Town hall with Barton and AARP’s Executive Director Jerry Cohen on issues facing seniors in Oregon from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Friday, May 17, at Pioneer Community Center, 615 Fifth St., Oregon City.

Barton town hall from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 20, in Johnson City prior to the City Council meeting at 16121 S.E. 81st Ave.