JEFFERSON CITY - Despite an increased case load in state courts, the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court Wednesday told legislators he wasn't seeking money for more judges. Instead, he wants more circuit clerks, and money to help speed up automating court records.
"Court clerks all over Missouri are dedicating and hardworking," said Chief Justice Duane Benton in his annual state of the judiciary speech. "But they cannot indefinitely continue to keep pace with escalating workloads."
A committee of judges proposed 147 additional clerks be hired, and Benton told the lawmakers they should consider this proposed eight percent increase. He also said they should continue considering making the positions appointed rather than elected, because it would help professionalize the positions.
One reason for the clerks' increased workload is child support collection responsibilities, Benton said. He said a new case management system now in place in Montgomery County helps court personnel there track court cases more efficiently, and the lawmakers should consider speeding up implementing the system statewide. Two other courts are expected to have their case management systems up and running by July, Benton said. All systems are set to be in place by 2004, assuming legislators pass funding.
The computer software replaces manual creation of files, fee sheets and docket sheets for new cases. It can also schedule court dates automatically, said Tracy Synan, communications counsel for the Missouri Supreme Court. Synan said Missouri is ahead of most states in automating court systems.
Automation helps speed case handling, allows electronic storage of court filings, which saves space in courthouses, and provides public access to court information, Benton said.
"We are now at a critical turning point," Benton said. "Rather than wait years for many of your constituents to see the benefits of court automation, we can provide these benefits now, at a lower total cost to the state."
Benton said he had discussed his proposal with Gov. Carnahan, who he said was supportive of the proposal. Carnahan will present his own budget to the legislature at his State of the State speech January 21.
Benton said spending on the judicial branch is less than one percent of the state's total budget.