On Superbowl Sunday, while much of the country was eating hot wings and drinking cheap beer, state Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) walked into the Clatsop County Courthouse to find Judge Paula Brownhill, her staff and the district attorney working like it was the middle of the week.
The two-judge district can't keep up with filings unless they work evenings and weekends, and even then, smaller civil matters get pushed to the back burner because there just aren't enough hours in the day, Witt said.
But their best chance for relief might be permanently stalled in committee. House Bill 2278A would provide funding for additional judges for Clatsop, Clackamas, Jackson and Umatilla/Morrow circuit courts.
"With pressing money needs, the Legislature isn't inclined to award new judgeships now," said Brownhill, who has been lobbying for a third judge since 1992. "It's not looking good for us this time."
With the clock ticking on the legislative session, Witt, who helped shape the bill, isn't giving up yet. His office is soliciting signatures from the nearly three dozen representatives and senators who have an interest in funding judgeships for the most over-extended counties.
"It's very, very important that we have an adequate number of judges to be able to handle the caseload," he said. "It's a matter of whether constitutionally their cases can be adjudicated in a timely fashion."
Not only that, you can't expect judges to work seven days a week without limit, he said.
Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) said she will champion the bill if it makes it to the Senate - but called the possibilities guarded.
"There hasn't been much enthusiasm on the part of the head of Ways and Means, Kurt Schrader," she said. "There hasn't been much enthusiasm to fund additional judgeships."
Democrat Schrader said Oregon can barely fund its existing judical branch. While increasing judgeships is a big issue in Clackamas - where he comes from - there just isn't any extra money lying around.
"We tried to do a good job this time of holding the courts relatively harmless. As far as improving the courts, we aren't going to be able to do that," he said. "We aren't going to be able to help education or social services either."
The Joint Committee on Oregon Trial Court Judicial Resources, which prioritizes the need for additional judges around the state, ranked Clatsop No. 4 on its 2005 priority list for new trial judgeships. Clatsop had 9,885 new cases filed in 2004, much higher than other two-judge districts. For example, Tillamook County had 2,043 new cases filed.
The strain on Clatsop County is evident in the murder-by-abuse trial of Theresa Beverage and Nicole Harris. Judge Phil Nelson has had to interrupt the case to do arraignments and detention hearings, even with Brownhill covering some of his other duties, Brownhill said.
Clatsop County Circuit Court has been receiving some relief from pro-tem judges who appear two days a week to handle traffic, landlord-tenant, and other cases, but Brownhill said relying on such judges is problematic.
They aren't citizens of the county, they aren't elected, the judge is different each week and it's hard on the lawyers to know how to prepare. Pro-tems don't always follow the court's rules and procedures, she said.
Money for pro-tem judges is not guaranteed - the court must apply for pro-tem money every biennium - and there's a six-month lag time between when money is awarded and when a pro-tem judge starts hearing cases. Last year pro-tem help disappeared at the end of June and didn't reemerge until December.
"If you take the 35,000-foot altitude view of this, it's a matter of constitutionality," Witt said. "We are guaranteed as U.S. citizens access to speedy trials. At the 10,000-foot level you're looking at folk who are doing everything they can to abide by these constitutional considerations, and we can't expect to have people working seven days a week."