KY. COURTS CLOG UP AFTER CANCELLATION OF SENIOR STATUS JUDGE PROGRAM

July 8, 2013
BURLINGTON — The scrapping of what was touted as an innovative program to relieve backlogged court dockets across Kentucky means it’s taking longer for everything from capital murder cases to civil lawsuits to get through courts across the commonwealth.
The program, which sent retired judges to courts around the state where they were needed, is being phased out.
“We will never catch up. It just gets worse,” said Tony Frohlich, one of two circuit judges for the judicial district that includes Boone and Gallatin counties.
The upcoming death penalty case of Michael Moore is an example of how one case can bring the system to a crawl. Frohlich, the judge presiding over the Moore case, will take breaks from the trial to hear other cases because there is no other judge available.
That means Moore’s trial, set to begin Aug. 12, will take seven weeks – three weeks longer than originally estimated.
The 43-year-old Moore, a former Warren County sheriff’s deputy, is accused of shooting his parents, Warren and Madge Moore, at their Union home in June 2009. The night of the killings, Moore called 911 to report an intruder came into the house and started shooting.
Death penalty cases already take longer than other homicide trials because judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are trying to reduce reversible errors. Of the last 78 people sentenced to death in Kentucky, 50 have had death sentences overturned by appeal, according to a December 2011 American Bar Association study.
Extending the length of trials creates other problems. There are greater risks jurors will talk about the cases or research the facts of the crimes. Jurors’ retention of the facts also becomes an issue.
“That is always a problem,” Frohlich said. “The longer you have it, the more days you are off, the more risk you run.”
Frohlich has taken breaks in other trials to keep cases on his dockets advancing. In October, he presided over a product liability case in Gallatin County that was stretched to three weeks from six days.
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It’s still not enough to keep things quickly moving in the third-busiest judicial district in Kentucky. The first available trial date for a civil case is already May 2014. Despite taking breaks from Moore’s trial to preside over busy dockets, Frohlich is not holding drug court and postponing 35 or 40 criminal trials, all civil trials and evidentiary hearings.
Frohlich isn’t the only judge taking breaks in long trials to hear other cases. It is regularly done in neighboring Kenton County.
The program being eliminated gave Kentucky’s chief justice a tool to address overcrowded dockets. The chief justice could assign retired judges to hear cases as needed as senior judges and still collect their state retirement.
It was called the Senior Status Program for Special Judges and was created by an act of the General Assembly in 2000. Legislators initially paid for the program through June 2007 but money was later appropriated to keep it running through 2014.
There are 15 special judges still in the program but no one available to help Frohlich. In 2007, there were 45 senior judges.
The program was originally seen as a way to address congested dockets when tight budgets prevented the creation of expensive new judgeships. Kentucky compensated judges in the senior status program through enhanced retirement benefits rather than general fund appropriations.
Why the sunset provision in the senior status program was not extended for a second time is not clear. Controversy erupted in February 2007 when a newspaper investigation estimated the program was costing the judicial retirements system $1.57 million per year. The program’s cost was originally estimated at $420,000 annually.
The program’s current cost to the retirement system wasn’t available this week.
Eliminating the senior judge program means any retired judge tapped to handle congested dockets in the future will have to be paid from the judicial branch’s general budget – and the money isn’t there. Legislators cut $25.2 million from the judicial system last year, forcing the courts to close for three days this year and furloughing employees.
“The chief justice recognizes that the loss of the … program might result in sitting judges handling even greater caseloads and attorneys and parties waiting longer for access to justice without the benefit of senior judges to help alleviate growing dockets,” said Leigh Anne Hiatt, public information officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Frohlich said the pounding he takes trying to manage congested dockets contributed to his decision not to seek re-election next year.
“Just look at these numbers,” Frohlich said in reference to the number of new court filings Boone and Gallatin counties. “You get to the point where it just wears on you.” ■

It’s still not enough to keep things quickly moving in the third-busiest judicial district in Kentucky. The first available trial date for a civil case is already May 2014. Despite taking breaks from Moore’s trial to preside over busy dockets, Frohlich is not holding drug court and postponing 35 or 40 criminal trials, all civil trials and evidentiary hearings.
Frohlich isn’t the only judge taking breaks in long trials to hear other cases. It is regularly done in neighboring Kenton County.
The program being eliminated gave Kentucky’s chief justice a tool to address overcrowded dockets. The chief justice could assign retired judges to hear cases as needed as senior judges and still collect their state retirement.
It was called the Senior Status Program for Special Judges and was created by an act of the General Assembly in 2000. Legislators initially paid for the program through June 2007 but money was later appropriated to keep it running through 2014.
There are 15 special judges still in the program but no one available to help Frohlich. In 2007, there were 45 senior judges.
The program was originally seen as a way to address congested dockets when tight budgets prevented the creation of expensive new judgeships. Kentucky compensated judges in the senior status program through enhanced retirement benefits rather than general fund appropriations.
Why the sunset provision in the senior status program was not extended for a second time is not clear. Controversy erupted in February 2007 when a newspaper investigation estimated the program was costing the judicial retirements system $1.57 million per year. The program’s cost was originally estimated at $420,000 annually.
The program’s current cost to the retirement system wasn’t available this week.
Eliminating the senior judge program means any retired judge tapped to handle congested dockets in the future will have to be paid from the judicial branch’s general budget – and the money isn’t there. Legislators cut $25.2 million from the judicial system last year, forcing the courts to close for three days this year and furloughing employees.
“The chief justice recognizes that the loss of the … program might result in sitting judges handling even greater caseloads and attorneys and parties waiting longer for access to justice without the benefit of senior judges to help alleviate growing dockets,” said Leigh Anne Hiatt, public information officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Frohlich said the pounding he takes trying to manage congested dockets contributed to his decision not to seek re-election next year.
“Just look at these numbers,” Frohlich said in reference to the number of new court filings Boone and Gallatin counties. “You get to the point where it just wears on you.” ■

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