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Hold on or you’ll get left behind in court

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My Views

By The Staff

If members of the judicial system in Bullitt County were looking for something to buy Circuit Judge Rodney Burress for Christmas, they may pool their money and send him on a two-week vacation.

The 55th Circuit was in the spotlight several years ago for having many old cases which were unresolved.

That isn’t a problem now.

Steps taken under retired Bullitt Circuit Judge Thomas Waller and continued on to Burress, who has made changes of his own, have resulted in Bullitt County sitting atop the state standings.

In terms of cases closed in Kentucky circuit courts, Bullitt County is at the top with 1,715 cases concluded during the 2009 fiscal year.

The county ranked fourth in total circuit cases filed with 1,681.

That is significant because Burress is closing out more cases than are being opened.

That’s how you get ahead.

Trying to get the judge to sit down and talk about the numbers and the changes has been difficult.

It’s not because the judge isn’t eager to talk. It’s because he’s always on the bench hearing both criminal and civil cases.

Following the court system in Bullitt County the past 25 years gives one a unique perspective -- things sure have changed.

From Athol Lee Taylor to Thomas Waller to Rodney Burress, with sprinkles of special judges Richard Oldham, John Potter and Stephen Ryan in the mix, each has brought a different personality to the circuit court bench.

What has changed the most over the past three years with Burress holding the gavel is the pace.

It’s been different for all facets of the system -- from the circuit clerk’s office to the commonwealth attorney to the defense attorneys to the sheriff’s staff to the jail staff to the probation and parole to the public defenders office to the newspaper.

Yeah, I know, you wonder why it has affected the newspaper. Previously, I knew a set day for guilty pleas and sentencings were held. Now, it could be at a break in a middle of a trial and the judge may go to the next courtroom and accept a plea.

In finally being able to pop in on the judge, Burress said nothing that has been done is for the numbers or the rankings.

The changes, which have been embraced by all parties, are to make sure everyone in the system has a forum to air their disputes in a timely manner.

A lot of political speak but he’s very sincere.

There is no doubt the courtroom is pretty chaotic at times.

There might be conferences with the judge at the bench, while his administrative assistant is setting hearing dates at another table. In the back of the courtroom there might be a prosecutor working out a plea agreement with a defense attorney.

The Monday motion morning has long since gone into the afternoon hours. Lunch is usually not an option on this particular day.

The afternoon and early evening hours are spent on Monday talking pleas and final sentencings, hearings and pre-trial conferences.

For some in the system, the efforts to quicken the pace has been more difficult.

No one will publicly complain. It’s a tight-knit community and all knew Judge Burress when he was just Rodney Burress, the defense and corporate attorney.

Part of the success over the past few years has been the respect of the office. When the publicity on the lagging cases hit six or seven years ago, it made some participants angry but most took it personally.

We don’t know if there should be a sense of pride in the county’s rise to the top of the state ladder. It probably means we just have a lot of criminal and civil cases in Bullitt County as the population continues to grow.

It also means that the members of the judicial community are working together to handle the caseload.

I haven’t even mentioned the addition of Family Court Circuit Judge Elise Spainhour, who handles another 1,000 cases a year and District Judges Rebecca Ward and Jennifer Porter, who will have over 10,000 cases, almost half of which are traffic related.

Burress is quick to point out the work of the entire team that has made the changes possible.

Some changes he implemented didn’t work. Others have been successful.

None would have gotten started if everyone didn’t buy into the system.

The long-range issue is resources.

Now that the state sees the county can survive on the current number of judges, clerks, bailiffs, prosecutors and public advocates, does that mean it would be more difficult to get more staff?

Right now, it’s difficult to keep the staff that is in place.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts has been asked to make cuts, just like other agencies in Frankfort.

However, commonwealth attorney Michael Mann doesn’t know if any more cuts could be tolerated.

His office is already having to find money to make the “part-time” prosecutor a full-time prosecutor.

Instead of the two assistant prosecutors, Mann said there is a need for more.

The entire state process of funding needs to be evaluated. More people and less new court facilities, which is easy to say after we have our wonderful facility up and running.

Congrats to all in the system. But don’t put away those running shoes... it’s a pretty fast pace out there.