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Zahra for Justice

New standards hold courts accountable for being accessible, moving cases promptly

The Detroit News

Michigan’s court system is clearly part of the reinvention of state government that is now under way. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. is driving the courts toward change that appropriately emphasizes efficiency, transparency and — most of all — providing good service to the folks whose tax dollars support it.

These ideals are hardly revolutionary in other sectors, but let’s face it, the courts long have had an image of stodginess, obscurity and resistance to change. As Young noted in the just-released Michigan Supreme Court annual report for 2011, judges and courts often have stuck with traditions that keep them doing things in comfortable ways that don’t always best serve the public.

The most-noted evidence that the court system is on board with the reform agenda is legislation now passed and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder that over time will eliminate 36 trial court judgeships. That’s based on leadership from the State Court Administrative Office, the administrative arm of the high court, which last year recommended slashing even more judgeships — 45 — along with four Michigan Court of Appeals seats because of a declining population and court load.

That’s an important sign it’s a new day here. Lawmakers had added 30 posts to the judiciary going back to 1989 and, in the past had resisted proposed cutbacks. The reductions will save an average of $140,000 in pay per judgeship and around $6 million a year overall.

The wisdom of these moves is illustrated in the new annual report, which shows that cases continue to decline in every category and at each court level. For example, in district courts, the lowest and busiest level, the number of cases declined to 2.6 million, a drop of 200,000 from 2010 and more than 700,000 below the high of 3.35 million in 2003. Last year, there were 55,435 criminal cases, down from 58,325 in 2010. According to the report, the State Court Administrative Office also is continuing to push circuit, probate and district courts toward concurrent jurisdiction plans in which a judge from one type of court can be assigned to another court, as needed. These courts also share administrative functions.

The judiciary also is streamlining through technology. Courts increasingly are receiving and sharing files electronically, using videoconferencing to conduct hearings and accepting payment of tickets online.

More importantly as far as citizens are concerned, the courts are being held to efficiency goals and pretty much meeting them.

The goal for divorces and domestic relations cases, for example, is resolution within 364 days. According to the report, that target was met in 91 percent of all cases during 2011.

Ninety-six percent of circuit court felony cases were adjudicated within 301 days — important because studies have shown that swift, certain justice is a key crime deterrent.

Quality of justice is hard to measure, Chief Justice Young says, but it is possible to keep track of such factors as the length of time it takes to complete cases; or how often potential jurors are summoned, only to sit waiting all day and finally be sent home unused.

Performance measures, common among businesses in the private sector, now are coming to the courts. That’s a necessary and welcome change.