JEFFERSON CITY — A new committee of House lawmakers is looking to provide much-needed relief to the state’s most overloaded court circuits, including the 38th, which covers Taney and Christian counties.
Dubbed the Special Standing Committee on Judicial Reform, the body is chaired by Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, House majority whip and a licensed attorney.
Smith said one of the committee’s most important tasks is to consider restructuring Missouri’s 45 circuits to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.
“It’s been over 50 years since we’ve done this,” Smith said. “The populations across the state have shifted dramatically since then.”
The 38th Circuit was identified as the district most in need of judicial help in a 2007 study commissioned by the state Legislature. Smith said he also views it as one of his committee’s top priorities among the circuits.
“It’s definitely one where there’s a lot of need,” Smith said. “This restructuring could drastically affect the 38th.”
Circuit Judge Mark Orr said last year that the need has remained high since the 2007 study, but budget constraints in recent years have not put the hiring of new judges at the top of any lawmaker’s priority list.
Smith made it clear his committee is not out to change that.
“The state budget is already facing a $500 million shortfall,” Smith said. “Clearly, we don’t have money to add any more judges.”
However, Smith said, legislators could relocate a number of the state’s 141 circuit judges so the load is spread more evenly.
For example, Smith said the circuit encompassing the city of St. Louis, which boasts a population of approximately 325,000 people, is assigned 24 circuit judges.
By way of comparison, Greene County’s circuit, with a population of 280,000, has only six circuit judges, and the 38th Circuit, with a population of about 130,000, has only one.
“I have to wonder, why does an area like St. Louis need 19 more circuit judges than Greene County, when it has only 45,000 more people?” Smith said. “Maybe we need to move some of these judges around. We’ll be looking at that.”
Taney County is already the recipient of a similar, but more limited program, where judges from circuits with lighter caseloads come to Forsyth to assist in hearing cases. Smith said the program, while helpful, is expensive, with the state paying the judges’ travel expenses.
“We spend a lot of money transporting these judges,” Smith said. “I think we could save a lot in the long term just by having more judges who stay in the circuits where they’re needed.”
Smith said his committee was just formed last week and will be holding an organizational meeting next month. Committee members will not begin working on legislation until a representative presents a bill that is assigned to them.
Smith said the task facing them is “not an easy process.”