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Director: Judicial turnover has state barely hanging on

Idaho Courts Director Sara Thomas said Jan. 16 the state has made big gains on improving court access and technology, but Idaho is barely hanging on when it comes to judicial turnover and vacancies.

“We are holding on by the skin of our teeth,” Thomas told members of Idaho’s legislative budget-writing committee. “We are seeing huge turnover — it is having a strong effect.”

As a result, the judicial branch is recommending lawmakers approve a plan that would both fund a new magistrate judge position in Jerome County and allow the courts to cover more cases using retired judges on “senior status.” The senior judge program pays retired judges to cover cases as needed when the local court would otherwise be overwhelmed by caseloads.

Jerome County currently sees more than 3,100 magistrate cases each year, not including infractions.

“We simply can’t keep up with the resources we have, so we are looking for an additional magistrate position in Jerome,” she said.

The judicial branch is recommending that lawmakers approve a budget increase of just $1 million from the general fund, for a total of about $72 million for fiscal year 2019.

That total would include about $49 million from the general fund, about $21 million from dedicated funds like court fees and alcohol surcharges, and roughly $2 million in federal funding.

Built into the budget is roughly $3.7 million and 17 additional staff positions for the state’s online court access system, called Odyssey, part of an ongoing effort to modernize court technology and replace a 25-year-old statewide computerized case management system.

A few Idaho counties have already switched to the new system, and another 14 counties are expected to go live this April. By the end of the year, Thomas said, every county in Idaho will be at least partially using the new system.

“Sometimes like Odysseus, we are sailing very smooth seas and sometimes we are on exceptionally rough seas,” Thomas said of occasional bugs that have popped up during the transition.

Thomas said the state can’t go back to the old system, though, and most of the bugs have been worked out.

“The reality is that we cannot fail,” she said

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