By SARA QAMAR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Chief Justice Robert Young is in talks with the governor’s office and legislators to shrink the number of judgeships in the state.
The move, which would require a constitutional amendment, would have the support of a State Bar of Michigan Judicial Crossroads Task Force, which recently released a report calling for cuts in all types of judgeships.
Barry Howard, co-chair of the task force, said four seats could be eliminated in the Court of Appeals through attrition by the end of this year.
The estimated savings to the state from each eliminated appeals judgeship is $750,000 to $1 million annually, he said.
The constitutional amendment would need legislative approval and voter approval in a statewide election.
“I think that it is a worthwhile attempt,” said Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia.
“From a bird’s eye view, consolidation is likely because we’ve lost so many citizens in our state.”
Walsh, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said an upcoming judicial resources report will consider caseload as well as population when deciding to cut a seat.
“We have 700,000 less residents in the state, and in some places we have population growth while in other places there has been a decrease,” he said.
According to recent U.S. Census data, Macomb County has seen an increase, while Wayne County continues to shrink, he said.
A key reason the proposed reduction should take place through attrition, or not filling vacancies from judges who reitre, die or resign, is to depoliticize the process, State Bar Executive Director Janet Welch said.
“Otherwise it becomes very chaotic and it politicizes the judiciary in a way that would be unprecedented in Michigan and would harm the integrity of the judicial branch,” she said.
“It’s important for the judicial branch to make the best possible use of tax dollars, and one way to do that is to have the right number of judges,” Welch said.
In Benzie and Manistee counties, probate judges are now working fulltime to make up the work of retired Judge Brent Danielson, whose seat was left vacant at the end of February, said Benzie County Bar Association secretary Linda Kehr.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea for here. I think we’ll be served with the judges we have. So far it’s been working out all right, but he’s only been gone a month,” she said.
In addition to the Benzie-Manistee seat, the governor’s office asked for an analysis of the need to fill five other vacancies. They are district judgeships in Detroit and Downriver, a probate judgeship in Calhoun County, and a circuit judgeship in Macomb and Barry counties.
Exact numbers of trial court judgeships to be eliminated will be announced after recommendations of the State Court Administrative office are released in August.
Savings of about half a million dollars annually per judgeship are estimated by the Judicial Crossroads Task Force, two-thirds of which would be county funds.
The 2009 resources report, which is released every two years, recommended four appeals court judgeships be eliminated.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget leaves room for six vacant judgeships, said State Court Administrator public information officer Marcia McBrien.
The 2011 recommendations will advocate elimination of at least as many as the previous report, she said.
The 2009 Judicial Resource Report recommended 15 trial court judgeships be removed.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.