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SHEPHERDSVILLE - On a normal motion day in Bullitt Circuit Court, a spectator may view the activities as chaos.
But those who are part of the system might rather refer to it as organized chaos.
With over 300 criminal cases being opened for each of the past five years and another 800-plus civil cases started during the same period, things can get a bit chaotic.
But Bullitt Circuit Judge Rodney Burress is very pleased with the progress that has been made as caseloads continue to grow. More importantly, he is pleased that the system provides individuals with a place to settle their disputes on a timely basis.
In fact, Burress recently ascended to the top of all circuit judges in Kentucky in the total number of cases closed during the 2009 fiscal year.
While the 55th Circuit was fourth in Kentucky by opening 1,681 cases, it was first with closing a total of 1,715 cases.
“It’s not about the numbers,” said Burress. “It’s about handling cases in a growing county and providing that forum for the disputes to be settled in a timely manner.”
Added to this number are the 1,315 cases filed in Bullitt Family Court, which was implemented nearly three years ago with the election of Elise Spainhour.
Burress said the court system has been making progress in getting cases closed over the past eight fiscal years but it has taken a total team effort.
The county was a target of a state newspaper probe several years ago but Burress said that the problem in Bullitt County is getting the cases through the system with available resources.
Even before taking the bench three years ago, Burress said retired circuit judge Thomas Waller had implemented several things to move cases along more quickly and to keep better track.
Computerization of cases has improved the situation but Burress said the biggest factor has been the cooperation of the many players who play a role.
“We don’t push people through the system,” said Burress. “We provide them a forum.”
On any given Monday, nearly 100 defendants may go through the criminal process.
Some are there for arraignments. Others may be there to enter a guilty plea.
Still others could face a hearing to revoke their probation.
While Burress is on the bench, it is common to see commonwealth attorney Michael Mann or one of his assistants - Nick Raley and Mike Ferguson - in a back room or at a side table talking with defense attorneys working on deals.
As the clock strikes 4 o’clock, the normal closing time for the judicial building, cases are still being heard.
More times than not, Burress, defense attorneys, circuit clerk Layne Abell, a couple of bailiffs and the prosecutors are still working as dinner approaches.
With the exception of a few conflict cases, Mann’s office is responsible for placing the 400-plus defendants on the dockets each year.
In the 2009 fiscal year, 444 cases were filed in criminal court. During that same 12-month period, 533 cases were settled and closed.
Catching Mann in the office is difficult. His staff spends much of its time each week in court.
“It’s difficult,” Mann said of the numerous hours spent in court.
When the prosecutors are in court, it is difficult to work with attorneys to see if settlements can be reached on cases.
There is also the paperwork needed to be done on each of the cases.
“There is a lot of work outside the courtroom that needs to be done,” said Mann.
In office during the early 2000s when the county was spotlighted, Mann said it was before computers were really used to track cases. Changes - such as setting a trial date at the time of arraignment - immediately helped to track the progress of cases.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts also provides a list of cases every six months.
The chief prosecutor accepts the changes imposed by Burress but he also knows the lack of resources from the state makes them challenging.
“We’re still trying to find a balance,” said Mann. “It’s been a good thing.”
Over the past couple of years, the tight budget has resulted in some furlough days and cuts in each prosecutors’ budget. Neither helps in a community that continues to grow.
Raley is technically a part-time prosecutor working full-time hours. A couple of years ago, Ferguson’s full-time position was added to the staff.
For some reason, Mann said the past several months have seen a real crunch on the system. He hopes the holidays will slow things up a little.
“There’s just no hope to get additional help,” conceded Mann. “It was needed before and it’s really needed now.”
When a case goes to trial, it is a major undertaking for the entire system, said Mann. Not only does it cause additional work for the prosecutor, there is also a defense attorney who must present his or her case. And the judge is not allowed to do other work.
During a trial, it is not unusual to hold hearings while the jury may be on a break or when it is deliberating.
Burress complimented Spainhour for being flexible to let him use her courtroom at times.
Lunch is not a sacred time, either. Burress has been known to routinely work through the lunch hour, especially on Mondays.
When court is in session, the Bullitt County Sheriff’s Department is required to have bailiffs for security.
When the judicial center is open for business, deputies are to be operating the metal detectors.
For Sheriff Donnie Tinnell, providing the security needed in the judicial center is a costly matter, especially when the AOC reimburses just $8 per hour and only when the judge is on the bench.
Over the years, the courts have gotten busier and the number of judges has grown. There is also the addition of drug court.
Larry Coy, who coordinates the security of the court facility, said when a judge works late, the bailiffs must work late.
When hiring people, Coy said it is important that they are flexible enough.
At times, there are 11 bailiffs on duty. Scheduling is a must as overtime could quickly kill a budget, said Coy.
When looking for bailiffs, Coy said people must be level-headed and know how to handle situations. And it is a situation that seems to grow more volatile every day, Coy said of the courtroom settings.
Tinnell would love for the AOC to increase the reimbursement, especially since his budget must supplement and difference in pay.
“It makes it difficult,” said Tinnell. “But that’s our job.”
On this past Monday, the clock reached 4:30 p.m. and the day was about over.
In fact, Burress and others seemed surprised. With a long docket, things were expected to last until past 6 p.m.
On this particular day, things went smooth and only one defendant drew the ire of the judge, who had to threaten an additional 180 days for contempt.
As the newly-elected circuit clerk, Layne Abell said it is difficult to imagine the workload of an office that must handle paperwork in all the courts.
And although Abell had been part of the court system as a pre-trial officers for over 20 years, it wasn’t until he stepped into the seat that he understood.
“Our caseloads have grown over the years,” said Abell.
Like other state agencies, the staffing has been the only thing that hasn’t grown.
He estimated that his office is eight employees understaffed. He knows that nothing will change in the near future.
Abell admitted that things were difficult when he took over but are working much better now.
Gone are the days of the court reporter. Enter the age of videos where each court session now goes to a CD. While the staff still has to burn CD for attorneys, the turnaround is much faster.
But with up to five judges on the bench at any one time, Abell said that each requires a member of his office.
“It’s been a total team effort,” Abell said of the ability to open and to close so many cases. “We’ve all had to work together.”
Burress said he knows the extra work all the various agencies have put in to make the improvements possible.
“Everyone has responded to the need,” said Burress. “The pace is tremendous.”
He said the key to his office has been time management and the excellent work of administrative assistant Marci Cunningham.
He is very appreciative of the support given by the AOC in terms of the new facilities and the technical advances; however, he knows there won’t be any additional staff.
“We have to find the way to work the cases with what we have,” said Burress.
If the caseload continues to grow, Burress doesn’t think the pace could continue to keep up with more changes.
Changes made along the way have included accepting pleas during pre-trial conferences. However, no plea agreements would be made the morning of the trial.
This has given attorneys on both sides more desire to settle cases.
Also, Burress said he was not afraid to talk with retired clerks Jean Hatzell and Doris Cornell, as well as Waller to bounce ideas off them and to ask them questions.
“They all have great knowledge about the process and the system,” said Burress.
Using the Monitored Conditional Release program has been successful. Instead of sitting in jail awaiting trial, defendants who are low risk are tested regularly for drugs and alcohol. They pay to be released and it saves a lot of money for the county as they are not incarcerated.
Drug court has been added and that is something that could help the court system over time, said Burress.
Burress knows that the pace has been difficult. He also knows there is little choice as the county tries to at least stay even with the criminal indictments, which have averaged 40 a month.
“I can’t say enough about how well everyone has worked together,” said Burress. “But the people in the system deserve it.”