BEND, OR -- Several local high-profile cases have recently had their trials pushed out, some waiting six months or more to get their day in court. Deschutes County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Wells Ashby says there's a simple reason: the seven judges currently on the bench are not enough to handle the demand. "Deschutes County last added a judge about 65-70,000 people ago, in terms of our population growth. In the most recent study by the Supreme Court, that the Legislature looks at, we’re down about 2.6 judges from where we should be."
The shortage has led to overcrowded dockets and delays, "It creates a host of problems: multiple appearances for attorneys can drive up costs; it creates further delay because we have to touch a file, so to speak, many times before we can try the case; it has an impact on victims because they’re not getting case resolution. And, family law cases don’t age well," Judge Ashby tells KBND News, "Families need resolution when they’re in conflict and they need answers from the court and it’s frustrating to not be able to get those in a timely manner." He adds, "Our time to trial is just - it’s excessive, and these cases are competing with one another. Everybody is trying to get into those trial slots, whether it’s a civil case, a family law case, or a criminal case. We’re trying to get to each of those groups but it’s challenging each week to decide what will go and what won’t go."
Judges are trying to create space by doubling up the docket, so that if one cases reaches a settlement beforehand, another trial can move into its place. They also developed a program a few years ago to help family law cases move forward when the parties represent themselves. "We’ve come up with some, I think, good solutions: We developed a pilot program for family law cases to really move much more quickly, adding settlement conferences; so we try to be partners in looking for efficiencies. But, we’ve been dealing with this problem for several years."
But, Ashby says, adding a judge requires Legislative action, "We certainly do what we can but at some point you simply need another trial judge, and that’s where we’re at." Deschutes County was on the priority list last Legislative session, but only two were approved, for Josephine and Washington counties. He's hopeful lawmakers will consider Deschutes County's request again in 2019. Even if Salem gives the nod, it could take another two years for an eighth judge to start hearing cases.