Innovative programs working in state’s courts, chief justice says

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By The Staff

From a technical standpoint, Kentucky’s judicial branch is the same age as its executive and legislative branches, all were officially formed when our Constitution was adopted in 1891.

But, the judiciary as we know it is only little more than three decades old.  Voters created it in 1975 when they eliminated an often-confusing variety of courts and replaced them with the orderly system we have today.

While dozens of Kentuckians have served as governor, house speaker and senate president, John Minton became only the fifth Chief Justice when he was sworn in this past summer.  It is a fitting number, as his father was the fifth president of Western Kentucky University.

Late last month, Minton appeared for the first time in his new role before the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, the birthplace of many criminal and civil laws our courts interpret one case at a time.

Minton pointed out that Kentucky’s courts handle 1.23 million cases annually, a figure that has grown by more than 40,000 during each of the last two years.

In the past decade, the court system has undertaken a series of far-reaching steps to take on the legal challenges of the 21st century. First, 70 judicial centers have been built or authorized. Inside these centers, court officials enjoy the use of the electronic age. Twenty-seven counties, for example, now allow citizens to use credit cards to cover court costs; 40 will be online to do that by summer.  Payment via the Internet and by phone also adds convenience.

E-warrants, filed electronically, are also gaining traction; this is intended to ensure they are served in a timely manner. This process also allows judges to sign warrants electronically, and even over a web-enabled cell phone, and allows more counties to know who is wanted on warrants.

The court system also has had significant success with programs designed to ensure justice is served. Topping these is family court, added earlier this decade as a result of a constitutional amendment. These courts handle difficult cases more seamlessly.

Drug courts are seeing similar success. There are 54 such courts in operation, and are available in almost every jurisdiction in the state. According to the courts, every dollar spent on drug court saves $2.72 that would have been spent on incarceration. The next phase under review is juvenile drug court. Hopefully,  we can better help adolescents fighting addiction.  

Another pilot project is felony mediation, which seeks a quicker resolution for certain criminal cases and reduces the growing caseload for circuit judges. Mediation brings together the accused and the victim to find other ways to solve civil cases. Officials who have used this method say it seems to be satisfactory for both sides, in the cases they’ve seen. If no agreement can be reached in mediation, a case then continues to trial. This tactic has been used to resolve such crimes as theft, assault and drug trafficking.

 But Minton said the state’s court system will begin running a deficit by 2011. That’s just one of the many challenges my colleagues and I face when we begin the 2009 Regular Session in early January. Your input, as always, is critical to how we determine the best way to proceed.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.