2017 Wyoming State of the Judiciary Address
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2017 Wyoming State of the Judiciary Address

December 5, 2019


(dramatic music) – [Narrator] This program is
supported in part by a grant from the BNSF
Railway Foundation, dedicated to improving
the general welfare and quality of
life in communities throughout the BNSF
Railway service area. Proud to support Wyoming PBS. – Members of the
64th Legislature,
distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I now present the
Honorable E. James Burke, Chief Justice of the
Wyoming Supreme Court. (crowd applauds) – Mr. President, Mr. Speaker,
Governor and Mrs. Mead, members of the 64th Wyoming
Legislature, elected officials, members of the judiciary, guests and citizens of
the State of Wyoming. It is an honor to
speak to you on behalf of the dedicated men
and women who serve in the judicial branch of
our state’s government. Thank you President Bebout
and Speaker Harshman for the opportunity to do so. – Thank you. – Congratulations to both of you for the well-deserved elevation to your leadership positions. We also offer our
congratulations to all the newly-elected
and re-elected members of our legislature. There have been changes
in our judiciary since we last talked. During the past year,
District Judge Jeff Donnell and Circuit Judge Terry Tharp
announced their retirements, after long and distinguished
careers on the bench. They will be missed. Judge Tory Kricken has
replaced Judge Donnell in the Second Judicial
District in Laramie, and Judge Paul Phillips
has replaced Judge Tharp in the Sixth Judicial
District in Gillette. Both are highly qualified. We are pleased to welcome
them as colleagues. I’m pleased to point out
that both took office on the first day
following the retirement of their predecessor. This is another testament to
our merit selection process. In Wyoming, we do not have
judicial vacancies that linger to the detriment of those with
cases pending in our courts. On a more somber note, we must acknowledge
the recent passing of a former County and
Circuit Judge Don Hall. Judge Hall capably
served the citizens with the Ninth Judicial
District in Riverton for over 22 years before
his retirement in 2004. We offer our prayers
and condolences to his family and friends. I was in the office
this weekend, catching
up on some work from last week, and preparing
for the upcoming events. During a break, I made a
visit to our Learning Center, which is in the first floor
of the Supreme Court building. There’s a lot of information
packed into that location. I find that each time I
visit, there’s something else that captures my attention. This time, it was the
subheading, shared power. It was on one of the pillars, referencing our three
branches of government. The phrase has influenced
my remarks to you today. No doubt, there are
many aspects to the term when describing
our three branches, and I do not intend to
employ it as a term of art in my remarks today. But mutual respect for each
branch seems to be inherent in the phrase. An expression of that
respect by another branch goes a long way in
developing and maintaining the public trust and
confidence that is so critical to the judicial branch. I want to highlight three
moments from this past year to illustrate the point
I’m trying to make. This summer we hosted
the Annual Conference of Chief Justices and
State Court Administrators. Nearly every state
was represented. The conference was
held in Jackson. The weather was perfect,
the scenery sublime, and our small, but mighty,
judicial branch administration staff, with spouses and
staff attorneys pitching in, pulled it off without a hitch. Special kudos to Ronda Munger,
from our court administration who made all the
trains run on time. But, for most in
attendance, the big takeaway from the conference, were
the welcoming remarks of our Governor. Governor Mead spoke
about the need for a strong judicial
branch of government and all that entails. He brought down the house. Standing ovation. Rave reviews. Some Chief Justices
suggest he run for Governor in their state.
(crowd laughs) I think he had at
least five offers. (crowd chuckles) I thought it was okay.
(crowd laughs) The positive reaction from
all of those Chief Justices and court administrators, I
believe, was in large measure, attributable to the
conditions in other states, where support for the judicial
branch pales in comparison to the support we receive here. The Governor’s remarks were
an extension of those he makes at each judicial
robing that he attends, and he attends them all, more than 20 since
he’s taken office. And, always his remarks
are well-received and have a positive impact. It’s one thing for a
judge to tell the public about the need for a
strong judicial branch. It is quite another for
our citizens to hear that from leaders of the other
branches of government, and we are deeply appreciative
that many of our colleagues throughout the
country are envious. We witnessed a similar
display this Monday, with the grand opening of
our Judicial Learning Center. Many of you were in attendance. It was a wonderful event, made
more special by the remarks of Governor Mead and
Speaker Harshman, both of whom expressed
their support and recognized the collaborative
effort that was essential to the success of the project. For those of you who have
not yet had the opportunity to visit the Learning Center, we would encourage you and
all members of the public to make sure to visit. I think you will enjoy
it and it will leave you with a better appreciation
for the rule of law and our system of justice. I would add that this is
not just a Cheyenne project. Within a couple of months,
the materials developed for the Learning
Center will be online and accessible for
use in classrooms
throughout this state. This project would have
never gotten off the ground without the financial support
authorized by the legislature. We think your investment will
pay huge educational dividends in the years to come. Thank you. (crowd applauds) Another moment that has
stayed with me occurred during the presentation of
our supplemental budget, to the Joint Appropriations
Committee this December. We did not make any requests
for additional funding. Instead, we suggested
General Fund cuts totaling over 1.9 million. As you might expect, there
were quite a few questions, some back and forth,
but at one point, we were asked by Chairman Ross, and I’m paraphrasing,
“Can you afford it?” Essentially, he was asking,
“Can you take these cuts and still perform
your core mission? Will our judicial branch be
able to continue to perform as our citizens expect?” In light of the difficult times this state is
facing financially, the question surprised me. But, upon reflection,
it shouldn’t have. Over the years, the legislature
has taken significant action even in difficult times, to maintain and strengthen
our judicial branch. We’ve taken to heart your
request that we participate in state budget cuts. We want to do our part. The reductions we have
proposed are significant and come from a
very lean budget. But, lean doesn’t hack it, if you still can’t
do your mission. While there is some
risk, we do not believe that our core mission will
be negatively impacted. In this day and age, technology
plays an essential role in our ability to
fulfill our mission. Our administrative office, including the Information
Technology staff, has been working tirelessly
to provide functional and reliable systems for
statewide court automation, including case management,
organizational tools for judges, electronic filing, public
access, and jury management. Upon implementation of
these various systems, we anticipate that the
judicial branch, as a whole, will become more
efficient and productive. Statewide court
automation has been a goal of the judicial branch
and the legislature for a number of years. While the hope was
that full automation of the courts would have
been recognized sooner, we are confident that the
judicial branch is now on a path that will provide
a solid foundation for the statewide rollout
of the various systems, in an effective
and timely manner. We are currently working on
updating and transitioning the case management system, in both the District and
Circuit courts statewide. This will result in a uniform
approach to case management, across general and limited
jurisdiction courts in Wyoming. Along with the new
case management system, the District Court
judges will also benefit from electronic tools, which
will provide them a method to better manage their
dockets, and individual cases in a manner that conforms
to each judge’s practices. Additionally, electronic
filing will provide attorneys with the convenience of
filing documents online without the necessity of
leaving their offices. Public access will provide
citizens with the ability to access nonconfidential
case information from any place that internet
access is available. The road to statewide court
automation has not been smooth. Frankly, we expected that
these systems would be in place before this time. During this past year, we
became convinced that a change in vendors was necessary, if we were going to get
where we wanted to go. We’ve hired a new
vendor and have embarked on an ambitious schedule to move forward
with these projects. The current case management
system will remain in place during transition
to the new system. Rollout of the system will
begin in June of 2018. E-filing will follow in
2019 and we anticipate that the entire project
will be completed in 2020, and that it will have
been worth the wait. Again, I want to thank
the District Court clerks for their patient
cooperation and support as we’ve worked
through these issues. We also commend this body for
its foresight and leadership, making this investment
to improve the delivery of judicial services
to our citizens. Adequate technology in the
courtroom is also an essential ingredient in a properly
functioning judicial branch. This past year, we
commissioned a study of the audio and
visual technology, in all 69 of our courtrooms,
in order to get a handle on the situation. The results were disturbing. Many of our courtrooms lack
basic audio enhancement features and have no video equipment. As one judge put it, “Abraham
Lincoln would be perfectly at home in my courtroom.” (crowd chuckles) We must do better, and that
brings me to another aspect of shared power, or perhaps
shared responsibility. There is no serious dispute that there should be
appropriate technology in all of our courtrooms. There is, however, a
difference of opinion about responsibility for
the purchase, installation, and maintenance
of that equipment. Are the counties responsible? Or, is the state,
through the judiciary? Reasonable minds can differ. Pertinent legislation does
not specifically define responsibility for
courtroom technology. Last year, I spoke at length
about technology improvements in the courtrooms in Pinedale. The county paid for
all those improvements. This year, it’s necessary
to discuss the flip-side of the courtroom technology
story, and again, I’m going to use
specific examples. The courtrooms in Natrona
County are some of the newest in this state. They are at the upper echelon
in terms of technology. The equipment was
purchased by the county. There is a county IT department. This past year, a major
piece of equipment failed in one of the courtrooms. Berta Hartford, a judicial
assistant for one of the judges, attempted to get the
problem rectified. She initially
contacted the county, and then she contacted the
Supreme Court IT department. When she received no immediate
commitment to fix the problem she sent an email to both the
county and our IT department. Here is what she said. “On October 11th, 2016,
county maintenance requested a meeting with the Natrona
County Commissioners, to discuss issues with
courtroom technology at the Natrona County
Townsend Justice Center. They expressed the
desire to have a meeting on the following day. To my knowledge, a meeting
has not yet been scheduled. It occurred to me that the
request did not articulate the pressing nature
of these repairs. Three of the four
District courtrooms in the Natrona County
Townsend Justice Center have critical technology issues, which must be
immediately addressed. In Judge Voorhees’
courtroom, 1A, there’s a fan in the equipment closet,
which is burning out. If it quits, there is a danger
of the equipment becoming too hot and burning out,
possibly frying the entire rack. The AV, too, for Judge
Wilking’s courtroom is bad, rendering all of the technology
in her courtroom useless. County IT was able to
install a telephone, but it is not attached
to the sound system, causing this Band-Aid fix
to possibly be of no use during hearings. Judge Wilking was required
to move the sentencing for a gentleman, in
custody and convicted of aggravated assault and battery,
to Judge Sullins’ courtroom, so the State could play a video
from the scene of the crime which the defendant insisted
on being played for the court prior to sentencing. She has had to
reschedule hearings with parties participating
by telephone. The projector screen
and monitors are relied upon attorneys in criminal
cases, to replay confessions, and show footage of the
crime and crime scene. The system is also
used in civil matters, to play video
depositions, display
photographs and exhibits. The monitors enable the
judge, counsel, jury, witness, and audience to
easily view the display. The ELO monitor allows a
witness to make notations on a picture or exhibit that
will appear on all the monitors without leaving
the witness stand. The volume on the microphones
cannot be turned up, turned down, or muted. The white noise
feature cannot be used. It prevents the jury from
overhearing bench conferences, while allowing the judge
and counsel to be audible to the court reporter
and each other. The ability to participate
by telephone is a feature that is used daily. It enables our
out-of-town counsel, including the Attorney
General’s Office, and other state agencies
to avoid traveling to Casper for short hearings, allows correctional
institutions, the
state hospital, treatment facilities,
to call instead of transporting the
party for the hearing, and prevents counsels
and parties from driving in inclement weather.” I love this email. It’s compelling. In a few paragraphs, Ms.
Hartford perfectly captures the benefits of
courtroom technology, the significant consequences
resulting from failure of that equipment, and
the frustration that comes when there is no clear path
to resolution of the problem. Ultimately, the problem
was fixed with funds from the judicial branch. Tim Knight is the IT Director
for Sweetwater County. He’s involved with
the construction of the new Justice Center
in Sweetwater County, which is on track for completion
in December of this year. He is concerned that there
is no agreement in place for maintenance of the
technology equipment
to be installed in the new courtrooms. He is endeavoring to
take a proactive approach to avoid the situation
that I just described. He offers his perspective
in a recent email to our IT department. “The problem with no
agreement in place is that there are several gaps
in defining responsibility for costs that come
up in regards to
supporting this system. I do not believe that the
state technology group gets to absolve itself from their
statutory responsibility of supporting the
operations of the court, and without an
agreement in place. The Board of County
Commissioners never
formally accepted financial responsibility
for the maintenance of the equipment. This might lead to a situation where the courts are
not able to function and the state and county
are in disagreement as to whose responsibility
it is to fix the problem. I’m also concerned that we
would be installing a system that the state is
not able to support, because there is a
different platform than they were set up for. There is an economy of scale in supporting a
large, common network, rather than supporting a
group of disparate systems, and the state would be better
served with a common platform in all the courtrooms. This appears to be a
philosophy shared by the state, as I had hired a consultant
to do an analysis of the courtrooms and come
up with recommendations as to what they should be
putting in these courtrooms. There are also several counties
that do not have IT support. It would not be fair to expect
different levels of service from the state, based on
which county you work in. Given all this, I recognize
that there are significant shortfalls in revenues in
all areas of government and there are limited
resources to be had in supporting
courtroom technology. Knowing that those
shortfalls exist, Sweetwater County IT staff
have been willing to assist in troubleshooting issues,
replacing defective equipment, or setting up systems
from time to time, in order to compensate
for the distances that separate the state IT
staff from the courtrooms. This is done with a
cooperative spirit, without any discussion
of remuneration, and I believe that this
relationship will continue as long as I am
the IT Director.” Mr. Knight asks, “So
how do we move forward?” The suggestions, “Number one,
the county and state should work to ensure that
the equipment installed at the new facility
is in alignment with the state courtroom plan. The state should work on
ways to increase funding to the court technology group, so that they have
adequate resources to support the courtroom
technology through the state. The county and state could
work out an agreement that is satisfactory to each
other regarding ongoing support of these systems.” He concludes, “I really hope
that the legislature makes it possible for the state
technology group to do its job, and make this a model facility
that can be replicated throughout the state.” We agree with Mr. Knight. Appropriate technology
should be in place in all of our state courtrooms. The quality of presentations
and the ability to hear what is going on in our public
courtrooms should not depend on the county in which
the case is tried. Economies of scale dictate
that the equipment be uniform so that it can be purchased,
installed, and maintained in the most cost-effective
manner possible. The state and the counties
must continue to work together but in every county,
for every courtroom, there must be a clear
understanding of responsibility. Funding must be adequate
and sustainable. These are not new issues. The back and forth between
the state and the county has been around for a long
time, but is seriously and negatively impacting our
ability to make progress. It is time that those
issues were addressed. We recognize that there
may be different viewpoints as to how responsibility
should be apportioned, and that all stakeholders
should have an opportunity to weigh in. Perhaps it is an
appropriate interim topic, but there is no question that
our courtrooms do not have adequate technology and that
additional funding is required. Senator Perkins
and Representative
Nicholas are sponsoring legislation this session to
address the funding issue. The proposed legislation
increases the court
automation fees by $10. Those fees have been in place since the judicial
system’s automation account was established in 2000. Even with the increase, our
court fees are substantially below those charged
in other states. The technology burdens on the
judicial branch have increased exponentially since that time. We would urge your support
of that legislation. Before closing, there
is one other piece of pending legislation that
I would like to discuss, and it involves
our Circuit judges. Our Circuit Court judges
are the unsung heroes of our judiciary. They are on the front lines, handling a high volume of cases, and are essentially
on-call, 24/7. They are the ones
that get called in the
middle of the night for search warrants. They operate under strict
deadlines in a large percentage of their cases. Bond hearings must be set
within 72 hours of arrest. Protection orders must be held
within 72 hours of request. They’re required to
have quick sittings for eviction proceedings,
must determine probable cause for felonies within
10 days of arrest, if the alleged felon
is incarcerated. We continually ask more
from our Circuit judges. In 2011, civil jurisdiction
in Circuit Court was increased from $7,000 to $50,000. This has led to more contested
civil hearings and trials. The legal issues presented
in those cases can be as complicated as those
presented in District Court. The Circuit judges, however,
must address those issues without any assistance from a
law clerk, or in many cases, from an attorney for any
party, because a large portion of their caseload
involves pro se litigants. On top of that,
they’re also tasked with the administrative
oversight of daily office operations,
including personnel. I could go on. Historically, there has been
an informal judicial salary structure in place, where
the Circuit judges receive somewhere between $15,000 and
$20,000 less in annual salary, than District judges. That changed in 2012, when the legislature approved
a significant pay raise to bring the judiciary
in line with salaries for employees of other branches. Salaries for Supreme
Court Justices and District Court
judges were set in line with the recommendations of
the Board of Judicial Policy. Inexplicably, at least
from our perspective, the salary for Circuit Court
judges was set at $119,000, which is well below the
$132,000 recommendation. The new salary structure
created a $31,000 gap, between District and
Circuit Court judges. There have been no judicial
raises in the past five years, so the gap continues. Senator Christensen and
Representative Miller are co-sponsoring legislation
to correct that inequity. The Board of Judicial Policy
has unanimously reiterated the recommendation it
made five years ago. We would urge your support
of that legislation. We recognize that there
are many other aspects of state government,
many other considerations that you must take into account
in reaching your decisions. We know that it is a
heavy responsibility, but we have every confidence that you are up
to the challenge. During my remarks, I’ve
emphasized the concept of shared power, or
shared responsibility. I did so, because I think
it’s important to recognize how fortunate we
are in this state. The mutual respect that
exists among our branches does not exist everywhere. Yes, there is a Constitutional
separation of power, but there is also cooperation
and communication. We are better for that, and ultimately, that
benefits our citizens. We wish you well in
this legislative session as you grapple with
the important issues
facing our state. Thank you again for the
opportunity to visit with you this morning. Good luck and Godspeed. Thank you. (crowd applauds) (dramatic music) – [Narrator] This program
is supported in part by a grant from the
BNSF Railway Foundation, dedicated to improving
the general welfare and quality of
life in communities throughout the BNSF
Railway service area. Proud to support Wyoming PBS.

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