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Judge orders no layoffs in justice courts

Over 500 signatures were recently gathered at the Farmers Market and elsewhere supporting the suggestion that the county commissioners cut their own pay as their part in alleviating the budget crisis. Jean Schurman photo.

By Michael Howell

District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton issued an order last week placing a permanent injunction on the County Commissioners from eliminating the position of Clerk/Receptionist in the two Justice Court departments of Justices Jim Bailey and Robin Clute.

The justices were granted a preliminary injunction on September 23, but the latest order, issued on September 27, makes the injunction permanent until the county can prove that the positions are not “necessary” to the functioning of the courts. No trial date has been set. Langton went on to state that “during the pendency of this action, or until this court should otherwise order, the Ravalli County Commissioners…are hereby enjoined and restrained from terminating or modifying the conditions of employment of any employee of Ravalli County Justice Court, Departments One and Two, without prior written consent of the Justice of the Peace of the Department in question.”

The Justices complained that they were not consulted in the budgeting process and that elimination of the positions would hamstring their departments, rendering them unable to perform their duties. They appealed to state law which states that “the board of county commissioners of the county in which the justice of the peace has been elected or appointed shall provide for the justice’s court the office, courtroom, and clerical assistance necessary to enable the justice of the peace and the clerk of justice’s court, if any, to conduct business in dignified surroundings…”

Langton states that the testimony regarding the operations of their departments, their caseloads, and the great or irreparable injury that will occur to their ability to conduct business if one-third of their staff is eliminated satisfies the circumstances set forth in the law.

“Petitioners have shown that it is at least doubtful whether the Justice Court will suffer irreparable injury before the matter can be fully litigated.”

The commissioners had scheduled a meeting on Monday, October 3, under the agenda item “County Attorney Litigation Strategy Meeting – Closed door may be invoked under MCA 2-3-203” to discuss the justice court case. The Bitterroot Star and Lee Tickell of and others protested the closure of the meeting. Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht told the commissioners that the law preventing a closed meeting between two government agencies did not apply in this case. Former County Attorney George Corn, representing the two justice courts, told the commissioners that he also believed that the law did not apply, but that he had no objection to open discussions.

“You are the ones who scheduled this meeting,” said Corn. He said that they could not require some agreement by the justice courts into a pre-condition of holding their meeting.

The commissioners came to a consensus to hold the discussion in an open meeting format.

Recht gave the commissioners four options in the case. He said they could proceed in developing their evidence and present it to the District Court, they could seek some budgeting option that does not involve termination of the court clerk positions, they could work out a process for reaching a resolution and work on it with the courts, or they could simply drop the case. Or some combination of the above.

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said that the commissioners clearly had authority over the budget. He said that dropping the case would leave the commissioners unable to carry out their duty to establish the budget.

Commissioner Suzy Foss agreed, saying, “If we stop now, we are setting a precedent. We’ve got to move forward.”

Commissioner Ron Stoltz also agreed, saying withdrawal from the case would set a precedent and would amount to a blank check for the justice courts.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that the key issue was a difference of opinion about how the word “necessity” gets defined in terms of the clerk positions.

Recht told the commissioners that the case involved a constitutional conflict between the separation of powers and the authority vested in the commissioners to create the budget. He said that what is required by the law is that “necessary” operation costs will be funded. But, he said, the law does not offer a standard for determining necessity, nor does it say who makes the decision, or what to do if the wrong decision is made. He said that since the law allows the district court to certify that the expenses are necessary it seems that the decision is in the hands of the court. He said the legislature could clarify the meaning of the law and further define the process. He said that it may be hard to get an Attorney General ruling on the matter since a court case is already active.

Attorney for the justice courts, George Corn, said that cases were fact specific. He said the commissioners should consider whether the current case is the best set of facts to reach the constitutional issues involved.

Mary Barton asked the commissioners about the potential cost of the litigation and got no answer.

Bill Menager said that the commission needed to see this through. “You need an answer,” he said, “You have no choice.”

In the end the commissioners decided to set up a two-person committee consisting of Chilcott and Kanenwisher to work with the County Attorney’s office to explore and refine the options.

At a later meeting the commissioners discussed various options for addressing the budget deficit created by keeping the justice court clerk positions as they are now required to do by Judge Langton’s order. The commissioners need to make up about $42,000 that was being saved by cutting the justice staff. The discussion ran the gamut from using reserve funds, to eliminating other positions, to looking for more operational cuts, or cuts in health benefits for all 195 county employees, or a 1 percent across the board reduction in every department’s budget.

Maggie Wright said that she had gathered about 500 signatures in favor of reducing the commissioners’ salaries by cutting their time. She said that $20,000 alone could be saved if the commissioners simply did not take the allowable mileage reimbursement for their ride to and from work.

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