A court-expansion plan approved by the Arkansas Judicial Council last year appeared as part of legislation filed last week by a Northwest Arkansas lawmaker.
But an added feature to the bill came as a surprise for people in Little Rock and Perryville, both part of the state's largest judicial circuit.
The plan to increase the number of circuit judges in the state, particularly in its growing northwest corner, was filed Thursday as Senate Bill 570, by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.
Hester's bill would add three new circuit judges in Northwest Arkansas, one in Sebastian County and one in northeast Arkansas, mirroring the plan approved by the Judicial Council in November.
In addition, it proposes adding a judge to the 6th Judicial Circuit -- which includes Pulaski and Perry counties -- with the caveat that the judge must be a resident of Perry County.
The Judicial Council did not recommend an additional judge in the 6th Circuit, according to a copy of last year's report obtained from the Administrative Office of the Courts. The administrative judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit, Judge Vann Smith, said the extra judgeship included in SB570 came as a surprise to him.
"We didn't ask for a new judgeship, and we think we're just fine with the 17 we have," Smith said.
Hester's bill and its effect on the 6th Judicial Circuit and Perry County were first reported by Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times.
The Arkansas Judicial Council voted Friday morning to support SB570 as long as the provision for an extra judge in the 6th Circuit is removed, said the council president, Circuit Judge John Fogleman of the 2nd Judicial Circuit. Fogleman added that no other circuits in the state have residency requirements tailored to specific counties.
"We're not real pleased that that part was added to the bill," Fogleman said. "This frankly is just out of the blue."
Fogleman said forcing the 6th Circuit to place an additional judge in Perry County could violate the Hunt decree, an agreement that is the result of a 1992 federal court settlement intended to expand the number of black judges in Arkansas.
Perry County, with a population of about 10,000, is much smaller than neighboring Pulaski County, population 393,000. It's also a predominantly Republican county, while Pulaski County leans Democratic. (Judges are elected on a nonpartisan ticket.)
Hester said his intention behind adding a judge for Perry County was to provide better access to the courts in the rural county. The text of SB570, however, does not specify that the newly created position would exclusively hear cases brought in the county.
"When you have to travel an hour and a half to get to court ... it's not functioning very well for residents there," Hester said.
Smith, however, said Hester's justification for the bill mischaracterizes how the 6th Judicial Circuit operates in Perry County.
While none of the 17 judges of the 6th Circuit live in Perry County, Smith said, they each take turns on a rotating basis hearing cases in that county. About five or six times a month, he said, a judge will go to a repurposed post office in Perryville, the county seat, to hear local cases.
Smith said the periodic visits are enough to handle the county's smaller caseload, which averages about 400 cases a year, compared with the roughly 22,000 cases filed every year in Pulaski County.
"We don't force anyone from Perry County to go to Little Rock for court," Smith said.
Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, who represents much of Perry County, said she and her constituents favor adding a judge from the county, though she said she was not specifically involved with the drafting of SB570.
"They're very much in favor of it so they'll have a continuity of judges," Bentley said of her constituents.
The other judicial circuits that would receive an additional judge under SB570 are Hester's home circuit, the 19th West in Benton County; the 4th Circuit covering Washington and Madison counties; the 21st Circuit covering Crawford County; the 12th Circuit covering Sebastian County; and the 2nd Circuit covering Clay, Greene, Craighead, Poinsett, Mississippi and Crittenden counties.
Judges in each of those circuits, as well as in the 6th Circuit, had caseloads above the state average in 2017 and the first half of 2018, according to statistics provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Four of the circuits that were recommended by the Judicial Council and included in Hester's bill -- the 2nd, 4th, 19th West and 21st -- had the highest average caseloads per judge in 2017, the last full year of data available. The 12th Circuit had the sixth-highest judicial caseload that year, while the 6th Circuit was 12th.
There are 28 judicial circuits in Arkansas.
SundayMonday on 03/18/2019
Print Headline: Provision in Arkansas courts bill catches judges off guard