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State of the Judiciary: Justice Minton talks business courts, speeding processes, redistricting, more

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

Improvements to Kentucky’s judiciary and a look toward the future were all part of the State of the Judiciary address by Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr., before the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Judiciary Committee on Friday.

“From civil justice reform to judicial redistricting to opening child protection cases to addressing court delays and the opioid epidemic, we’re dealing with sensitive, thorny issues that require all of the expertise, intelligence and imagination we can muster,” he told lawmakers. “By putting our collective heads together and drawing on a vast array of abilities, our justices, judges, circuit court clerks and court personnel are coming up with innovative ways to improve how we provide court services.”

Chief Justice Minton

One aspect looked at this year was business courts, with a pilot program in Jefferson County.

“We concluded that the current caseload in Jefferson County does not justify a separate court dedicated solely to business disputes,” he said. “Instead, we have opted to create a Business Court Docket within two divisions of Jefferson Circuit Court.”

An advisory committee is establishing criteria for the cases that can be put on the business docket and Minton says they hope to it up and running in January.

Speeding up the process of resolving civil cases is also being investigated, according to Minton, with judges taking a more active role in case management.

“Relying on attorneys and parties to ensure disputes are progressing leads to an increase in costs, delays and general inefficiency,” he testified. “There’s a growing movement among state and federal courts to put the responsibility on judges and courts to manage cases by requiring early intervention and a strict case management plan that forces a case to progress rather than remain stagnant.”

Judicial redistricting based on caseloads, not population as is the case in legislative districts for example, will be addressed with a new caseload study next year, as mandated by legislation passed in 2018. Minton says the National Center for State Courts will help facilitate meeting next month, to determine if a new caseload study is needed or if they can build from one conducted in 2015.

“This schedule will give us sufficient time to review our current practices in preparation for conducting a weighted caseload study in 2020 and making judicial redistricting and reallocation recommendations to the General Assembly before the 2021 legislative session,” Minton said.

He also said they held community engagement sessions in Jefferson County, regarding trust in the court system. “After the listening session, graduate students from the University of Louisville Department of Sociology held a series of focus groups in Louisville on bail and incarceration, evictions, Family Court, Drug Court and expungements.”

Minton says results will be announced after they are received from U of L. “The results will guide how we address concerns raised during the community engagement program,” he said.

On another topic, an eight-county pilot project called KY3 is underway to move to a fully electronic court system, he reported.

“Circuit clerks scan documents from select case types, moving us closer to our goal of maintaining an all-electronic case record. By storing digital images and court case data electronically, we can eliminate the need for paper files. We believe that electronic filing and scanning will benefit all of our justice partners, offering them the ability to electronically submit, store and share information systemically in secure environments.”

Helping reduce Kentucky’s opioid epidemic was also addressed by Minton, some of which is being done through a three-year regional effort, since the issues transcend state borders.

“Kentucky has joined Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia to form a Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative,” he testified, which is partially funded through a federal grant, and focuses on best practices, child welfare, prescription drug monitoring, treatment capacity and research.

The states collected statewide opioid data during the first year of the grant and created committees to address areas of concern and develop databases and information libraries in the second year.

“Resources produced during year two included a regional bench card for medication-assisted treatment based on Kentucky’s template, resources for placing children across state lines, a publication to aid judges in assessing the quality of treatment providers and an interactive data map for each state’s statistics to help identify the areas of greatest concern, especially at the borders,” Minton said.

They will be implementing teleservices and other online resources for judges in the third year.

Another initiative is Responsive Education to Support Treatment in Opioid Recovery Efforts, funded by a federal grant awarded to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which includes a series of summits held across the state.

He said, “The summits are helping court officials understand the nuances of opioid and substance use disorders by covering the science and stigma of addiction, the relationship between trauma and these disorders, evidenced-based practices in treating these disorders, family preservation in the context of a substance use disorder and the role of the courts in supporting recovery.”

Minton also said specialty court programs, such as Adult Drug Court, Veterans Treatment Court, Mental Health Court and even DUI Court, are only serving about 2,500 people, and need to be updated.

“Our current model is not designed to support the huge influx of people who are coming into the courts with lesser charges, such as misdemeanors. These court-involved individuals, their families and their communities would benefit tremendously from access to case management resources and treatment providers at every level of the court system.”

When it comes to jail overcrowding and bail reform, Minton testified, “I have publicly stated my support for sensible pretrial justice reform before legislative committees and through my commitment to the 3DaysCount initiative. But I want to emphasize that pretrial reform alone will not solve jail overcrowding. It is simply one tool in our toolbox for tackling this issue.”

Minton also noted Kentucky’s judicial salaries continue to be woefully lacking at all levels of the court system, with Kentucky’s general jurisdiction circuit judges ranking 51st out of 55 states and territories and Kentucky’s associate Supreme Court justices ranking 50th out of 55 states and territories.

Proposals are in the works to address all these topics are being prepared for the 2020 legislative session.

The full text of Justice Minton’s speech is here.

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