Deschutes County needs more judges, according to court officials, and 2019 could be the year it finally gets one more.
To help deal with a burgeoning need, the administrator for Deschutes County Circuit Court has asked the Legislature to fund a seventh judge position in Deschutes County, along with four additional support personnel.
And one more judge could have a big impact on speeding up the local judicial process.
Recent state caseload data shows the county actually requires 2.5 additional judges and 11 more support personnel.
For comparison, Multnomah, the state’s most populous county, needs eight new judges, according to the latest weighted caseload figures.
“It’s a question of proportionate need,” said court administrator Jeff Hall. “And we’re at the wrong end of the bell curve. We’re one of the most underjudged courts in the state.”
Hall said Deschutes County is in the top four in terms of need.
“Oh, we have a dire need,” District Attorney John Hummel said. “We’ve needed two judges for 10 years. We’re not going to get two, but we’d be grateful for one. We’re one of the worst in the state, and not only are we one of the worst, we’re due.”
Hummel said the need for courtroom personnel is the No. 1 reason cases in Deschutes County often take so long to process. It’s not unusual for serious criminal cases to take 2 1⁄2 years.
“It is the main factor,” Hummel said. “Sure, we can always look at our systems and procedures and processes. We’re always making tweaks and doing what we can to get the best result that we can with what we have. But what we have is too few judges.”
Every two years, Hall’s office develops a budget request to submit to the Oregon Supreme Court chief justice’s office. Chief Justice Martha Walters has submitted her requested budget for the 2019-21 biennium. One of her policy option packages related to new judgeships asks for $4.5 million and would add judges in 12 counties and dozens of support staff around the state.
But just because Deschutes County needs a judge doesn’t mean it will get one. Only two judge positions have been added in Oregon since 2007. Those judges were elected last year — in Washington and Josephine counties — and they took office this month.
Beyond being inconvenient for defendants, victims and other parties involved, long delays in cases often affect the outcome, Hummel said. Witnesses and other people involved in a case can move away or forget their version of events or simply disappear. Depending on the situation, the march of time can benefit the prosecution or the defense.
The state’s baseline data comes from a document called the weighted caseload study, which assigns “weight” to various types of cases — violations, misdemeanors, felonies, civil and juvenile cases — based on the amount of time they take to process.
The number of total cases in Deschutes County has decreased in the past decade. But this is mainly because the number of minor offenses has gone down, while the types of cases that require the most judge time have increased, Hall said.
Proposed legislation is scheduled to be released in the next few days.
The position would be filled by an election. The position would be nonpartisan, and the term would run for six years.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org