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Dubois court likely to shut down Jan. 11

Dubois court likely to shut down Jan. 11

Dec 14, 2012 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The Wyoming Supreme Court recommended the closure by July 1, 2013, but a staff vacancy probably will hasten it to Jan. 11.

The 9th Circuit Court in Dubois will close ahead of schedule on Jan. 11, barring legislative intervention.

The court clerk's early retirement is spurring the closure ahead of the July 1 scheduled date.

Dubois area residents and law enforcement officers will have to drive the 75 miles to Lander or Riverton for trials once the Dubois court closes.

Dubois Mayor Twila Blakeman spoke at the Dec. 11 county commission meeting with commissioners State Sen. Cale Case and State Reps.-elect Lloyd Larsen and Nathan Winters.

"It's going to have a huge impact on Dubois," she said. "We have five deputies up there. It's going to cost us a fortune for them to travel ... They're going to be on the road all the time."

Closing the court in northwest Fremont County along with those in Powell and Lovell will save the Supreme Court $40,000 a year, chief justice Marilyn Kite wrote in a budget proposal. The Legislature's Judiciary Committee on July 30, the Supreme Court's proposed budget which cuts expenses by 4 percent.

Kite wrote that case loads did not justify keeping the three courts open and that they would close by July 1, 2013.

For several months, the Dubois court's clerk Sue Cole has been on sick leave.

She recently decided not to return to work for personal reasons, said Denhardt.

Denhardt believes he will not get permission to hire a new clerk to keep the court open temporarily.

"They'll say 'no you're not. You're closing that much sooner,'" he said.

The Ninth Circuit is based in Lander but has had a satellite court twice a month in Dubois for many years.

The Dubois court hears about 500 to 600 citations a year estimates Denhardt. That number does not necessarily reflect the number residents who must go to court.

Tourists cause many of the citations, and fewer than half are from local residents, said Denhardt.

Many offenders also choose to pay the fines rather than go to court, and non-locals who contest citations often appear via telephone.

The court does more than save locals a long trip, however. The Town of Dubois contracts with the court to process its ordinance violations. Ordinance cases are a small part of the court's case load and take up about 15 minutes of the court's time every two weeks, said Denhardt.

Circuit courts hear misdemeanor cases traffic cases, criminal cases with penalties up to a year in prison and civil suits of up to $50,000. Felony cases also start there before moving to district court.

Denhardt also attended the commission's Dec. 11 meeting and asked for assistance in keeping the Dubois court open.

Dubois and the county could partner to fund the clerk position, but the Supreme Court could decide not to allow that, Denhardt told commissioners and legislators. The judge thinks a sure solution would be for the Legislature to provide specific funds to keep the court open.

He said the cost of the court is the clerk's roughly $28,000 salary, $3,500 in travel expenses for officials, and $650 in office supplies.

"If there were a local finance stream, that would have to be approved by the Supreme Court?" asked Larsen.

Denhardt said that is true, and he has not gotten an answer from the Supreme Court as to whether it would approve such an arrangement.

Case added, "The real tragedy is the people in Dubois will have to travel so far."

In a separate conversation, Denhardt said the city and county could not pay the judiciary directly, so if they funded a clerk position the clerk would be a county employee. He fears the Supreme Court would prohibit an outside employee from handling court business.

Denhardt said he mentioned this situation to legislators several months ago but has not gotten a response.

In another conversation, Blakeman said three legislators have told her they would support funding a clerk for Dubois, and another told her he did not know what he could do.

Besides the travel cost and time for Dubois residents, closing the court in Dubois will force the town to hire a municipal judge oversee ordinance cases or stop enforcing its ordinances, said Denhardt.

The impact to law enforcement budgets is difficult to ascertain.

Game Wardens, sheriff's deputies and highway patrolmen based near Dubois will have to travel further for court appearances.

Denhardt said some officers attend trials at the Dubois court involving citations they gave, even if they were not testifying. Only a couple trials a month, however, require appearances by law officers.

Only officers required to appear at future trials would have to make the trip to Lander or Riverton.

Transporting citations, though, will add to the cost. Game and Fish, the sheriff's office and highway patrol all deliver citations weekly or more often to the Dubois court.

Once it closes, those citations will have to travel farther.

In its budget proposal, the Supreme Court recognized that closing the court would create a hardship but said "citizens throughout the state have similar distances to travel to reach their circuit courts.

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