Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Thomas Harrington notified the Big Horn County commissioners at Tuesday’s regular meeting that the Wyoming Supreme Court will be closing the Lovell Circuit Court office on July 1, 2013, as a cost-saving measure.
Judge Harrington said the Supreme Court completed a clerk study in April. “Based on those numbers we are losing a clerk position,” he said.
There are three positions currently, and staff would be reduced to two — the clerk and an assistant. He said the two current assistant clerks have agreed to work half time each, splitting one of the full-time positions.
The Supreme Court is looking at closing three satellite offices in the state, Lovell, Powell and Dubois. They estimate the savings from closing the three offices over a five-year period will be nearly $300,000, according to their budget report for 2013-2014, Harrington said.
According to the report, they estimate a savings annually from the Lovell office of $21,387.27, which includes reducing staff to half time. Harrington said the problem is that they are already eliminating the clerk position. Other savings are in mileage and office expenses. According to their study there were 1,284 filings in Lovell in 2011, 841 for traffic and 263 civil/small claims cases.
The estimated savings for Powell is $4,224.17 and Dubois is $13,863.50.
The report states additional savings comes from eliminating equipment and technology needs.
“I can’t tell you how much I oppose this move. I think it’s the wrong direction to go,” Harrington said. He added that he wrote a memo last spring but no one noticed. He said he didn’t know if the county could cover the costs to keep the office open.
Chairman Jerry Ewen said, “Our approach is going to have to be political rather than financial. We don’t have the funds to pick up the tab.”
Commissioner Thomas “Scotty” Hinman added that the county could get local legislators involved.
Harrington said he has heard a Park County legislator is working on introducing legislation to try and prevent the closings.
He said that the issue is administrative. “I don’t think they’re going to change anything unless someone picks up the tab,” adding that the Legislature has asked each department to cut budgets next year by 8 percent.
Ewen asked Harrington how he thought the change would impact circuit court.
“Everything will be filed in Basin. We’re worried about where we’re going to put the files,” he said. “This is an administrative action that doesn’t have to go through the Legislature unless the Legislature takes action and says we’re not closing any courts.”
His biggest concern, however, is “access to justice for residents of Big Horn County.” He said if a business in Lovell has a $200 small claims case they likely won’t travel to Basin to file that.
He said deputies and Lovell Police will have to come to Basin to file cases. Mental health clients will have to drive farther, as will the public defenders, all of whom come from Cody and Powell, and Department of Family Services employees.
Harrington said he is also concerned about the impact of victims of domestic violence. “We have more in Lovell than in Basin. They might be more hesitant to file or seek protection if they have to travel.”
He said often times people don’t make it to court because “I didn’t have gas money.” He said there are poor people in the county that won’t be able to afford to go the extra distance. “It disturbs me that we are going to be cutting access when people are hurting.”
He added, “Then they’ll say our numbers have dropped and probably cut more staff. There’s a certain snowball effect that I’m concerned about.”
Harrington said the offices have been directed to start filing all cases in Basin as of January in preparation for the change.
“I just wanted to make sure you knew what I knew and what the ramifications are we are facing,” Harrington said. “I have Big Horn County roots. (He also has a home in the Shell area.) This just hits me right in the gut and I’m willing to fight for it as much as I can.”
He added he’s also concerned that the Legislature will try and phase out the use of magistrates. He said Magistrate Randy Royal is a tremendous asset to Big Horn County and helps him out.
“I can’t be three places at once,” he said.
Harrington serves Hot Springs, Washakie and Big Horn counties.
By KARLA POMEROY