State budget cuts delay seating of new county judge
Departing Eagle County Court Judge Teri Diem wrapped up her work two weeks ago, but her replacement, Fred Gannett, won’t take the bench until March 1. Court officials attribute the delay to state budget constraints.
That doesn’t mean that nothing will happen with the busy court docket for the next six weeks. Rather, several “senior judges” – jurists who have retired from the bench but still do some occasional work, will handle the local docket.
“It is really busy. I know we have full dockets for all of those weeks,” said Chris Yuhas, district administrator for the Fifth Judicial District Court system.
Yuhas said the judges can work without impacting the state budget because they are paid in part through the Public Employees Retirement Association, rather than directly from state coffers.
State officials have ordered court employees to take an unpaid day off once a month for the past three months. The voice-mail answering message at the court offices in Eagle warns callers the court is short-staffed and they should anticipate slower service and response time.
Yuhas says that’s a difficult situation for a county court system that sees more than 5,500 new filings every year, with about 1,700 filings in District Court, as well.
“We are short-staffed. People have to take the mandatory furlough days,” she said. “They’re not there to answer their voice mail. They get backed up.”
There’s currently a vacant position at the Eagle courts. Yuhas said she was able to persuade the state to make an exception to the current hiring freeze due to the workload locally. Still, she’s reluctant to advertise the job when there’s talk of potential state employee layoffs to help ease the state’s economic crunch.
“As soon as I get a read on which way the state Legislature is going to go, I’ll post that position,” she said.
Yuhas said that one of her concerns with the Fifth Judicial District is that bad economic times tend to bring in more cases, including an increase in domestic violence and petty crime, more substance abuse, and people following up on small claims court cases that they might be inclined to let slide during more prosperous times. She said she’s worried the judicial system will be asked to make even more employee cutbacks.
“We are a core function of government,” she said. “Without the courts, you are going to be in bad shape. We have public safety issues, divorce cases, juvenile issues, civil cases and people trying to do business. People don’t realize how much they rely on the courts because we’re always there, processing the cases.”
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.