Gallatin County in desperate need of more judges | Law

Bizar Male

There are a lot of criticisms that can be leveled at the 2021 Montana Legislature. But they got one thing right: funding an additional district judge for Gallatin County.

Gallatin County has been stuck at three district judges for 15 years while experiencing the fastest population growth in the state. That’s the fewest judges of any of the larger counties in the state. And the strain is showing.

As was spelled out in an April 25 Chronicle report, the three judges work long hours and into weekends to keep up with their caseload. A study by the state Supreme Court administrator concluded Gallatin County’s population warrants nearly seven judges to keep up with the work that population demands.

The county has been seeking an additional district judge for several legislative sessions. But lawmakers have balked at the request, most recently citing the lack of space in the Law and Justice Center to accommodate another court.

Leading up to this year’s session county commissioners vowed to find the needed space if the court was approved.

Courts often get the short shrift when it comes to doling out budget dollars. Though courts are a vital part of the state’s infrastructure, they do their work largely out of the sight of most of the taxpayers who fund them.

That is until those taxpayers need the court to act on their behalf.

The public perception is that state district courts dispense criminal justice. That they do, but they also do a whole lot more. The courts rule on a whole range of civil actions — divorces, adoptions, lawsuits that can affect the profitability of businesses.

Attorneys report that waiting for a trial to settle civil disputes can take years — longer than is practical to wait for their clients, forcing them to abandon efforts to rectify disputes.

And Gallatin County’s courts’ crushing caseloads have led to delays in critical criminal justice cases, such as those involving domestic abuse or the separation of children from parents when neglect is suspected.

The county courts will need more than one additional judge to rectify the problems it faces. But the addition of one beginning in January of next year will be a good start.

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

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