Park County commissioners offered to pay the Supreme Court the $6,000 a year administrators say they’ll save by closing Powell’s court, located at the Park County Annex, but were told the high court would prefer to move forward with closure.
Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters of Cody, who presides over both Circuit Courts, is not among the supporters of the proposal.
“We’re not going to close it any sooner than we have to, but that’s not something I have a lot of choice in,” Waters said. “These are decisions being made in Cheyenne.”
For his part, “I think it performs an important service for the people in Powell — people who are just coming in to pay fines, people who are coming in for various requests or various filings, it’s a lot more convenient than in Cody,” the judge said of the court, which primarily handles misdemeanor citations.
“It means the kids will be potentially out of school longer, parents will have to be away from work longer if their children are attending court, it’s an extra burden for law enforcement officers that have to come to Cody to get documents,” said Waters.
From police search warrant returns to requests for protection orders, “It’s just that convenience factor for folks that live in that area,” Waters said.
State court administrators are citing what they call efficiency over convenience.
The initial savings will reportedly come from fewer office supplies, equipment, magistrate fees and travel for Waters — who comes to Powell once or twice a week — and a clerk — who staffs the local office three days a week. Bigger savings are expected to follow.
“We felt in looking at our budget cuts overall that it would be more efficient of both the judge and clerk’s time to have the Powell office be closed,” Court Administrator Joann Odendahl told the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee on Monday.
Odendahl noted that the Powell court already does not take civil filings and very rarely has small claims (only 15 cases in the past fiscal year). The majority of the 2,150 filings — about 1,600 — were forfeitable traffic offenses where a court appearance wasn’t required. Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite noted those fines can be paid online or over the phone.
Meanwhile, Circuit Court proceedings in felony cases from the Powell area are generally held in Cody, as those individuals tend to be incarcerated in the jail there.
“After you look at the full picture of what that satellite court is doing, it makes more sense in the court’s opinion to have those cases just simply filed in the Cody office,” Odendahl said.
Comparing to other courts
Justice Kite noted that most counties have only one court and that most citizens have to travel to their county seat for circuit court.
The most notable exceptions are in Fremont and Lincoln counties.
Lander (4,013 filings last year) and Riverton (7,298) each have their own courts despite being the same distance apart as Powell and Cody, but Kite described those as “big, busy courts.”
She said the same about Afton (3,616 filings) and Kemmerer (3,677), which are 97 miles apart.
“There’s greater distances and it makes sense to have two courts there. It makes sense for the public,” she said.
As for Powell (2,150 filings), Lovell (1,641) and Dubois (383), “Where the numbers were so low, we simply felt it was not responsible for us to maintain an office in those areas,” said Kite.
“That’s not to say there won’t be some dislocation of members of the public or that we can’t think about ways that we could — between now and the time we have electronic filing in place — ... try to accommodate some of those, but the number of people that would be affected is really small. It’s small in Powell,” the justice said.
It went unmentioned by the court officials on Monday, but Powell had about 408 “must appear” citations — that is, those that require people to physically appear before the judge — in the past fiscal year. That was more than the courts in Afton (245 must appear citations) and Kemmerer (139) courts and effectively even with Lander (412).
All the towns and cities of Powell’s size or larger have their own circuit court, though in most instances, they are county seats.
There are 23 municipalities with 2,600 people or more and of those, 22 currently have their own circuit courts. The closure of Powell’s office would make it and Mills — located just four miles outside of Casper — as the only ones without a circuit court.
During Monday’s hearing in Cheyenne, state Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, whose district includes Powell and Lovell, questioned the proposed closures.
“This is the population that, in a lot of cases, having to make these filings, don’t have the money in the first place, so it’s a tough deal,” Peterson said. He said he’s received more calls about the court closures than any other issue over the last six months.
“People are not happy,” Peterson told court administrators. With increased travel distances, Peterson said finding a ride could be a hardship.
“I question equal justice,” Peterson said. Kite again noted that other communities face similar travel distances.
State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said Kite’s numbers “made sense,” but suggested the state could provide one-time funding to set up video conferencing sites for communities like Powell, Lovell and Dubois all around the state.
In addition to the $6,000 of up-front savings in Powell, court administrators say the closures in Lovell and Dubois will save another $34,000. They’re a part of $356,496 worth of proposed cuts to the $13.7 million budget for the state’s Circuit Courts in the next fiscal year.
Over the next five to seven years, Kite says the closures of the Powell, Lovell and Dubois courts will save nearly $300,000.
In a July memo to the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee, Kite predicted the closure recommendations would not be popular.
“We realize that those actions will not be welcomed by the local communities and we regret having to take them, but believe those citizens will still be served in a similar fashion as the rest of the state,” said Kite.
Her prediction is proving prophetic.
One of the legislators who heard Kite’s pitch earlier this year was Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, a member of the House judiciary committee and a deputy Park County Attorney.
Krone told the Tribune in an interview last month that he’s “totally opposed” to the plan.
“It (the $6,000) is such a minimal amount and it’s such an important thing for people to go over and do their court business there instead of having to drive over to Cody,” said Krone.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me. I think it’s a real foolish idea,” he added. Krone said he wanted to work with the court to keep the Powell office open, but could introduce legislation to block the closure if that doesn’t work.
Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric, Krone’s boss, said he respects the Supreme Court’s decision, but similarly disagrees with it.
Skoric speculated the increased time, fuel and vehicle wear and tear that citizens and law enforcement will incur as a result of the closure could total hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“They save $6,000 somewhere and the community gets to absorb it all,” said Skoric.
He noted that the county commission offered to pay the court the money.
“Take the cost argument out of it, what’s the reasoning for doing it?” he asked.
The Tribune was unable to reach Odendahl on Wednesday for more information and clarification about the closures because she was traveling.
One reason why commissioners are unhappy is that the county — which provides the space for the court at the annex and the courthouse — will now have to find more space to house the Powell files in Cody. And the Cody office is already pressed for space.
Commissioner Joe Tilden suggested the court never took a long, hard look at the impacts of the closure and is doing so because it was an easy cut.
Commissioner Dave Burke cited the court’s importance to the public.
“It’s not just (it would) be nice to have it there, to some of these people, it’s essential,” he said.
Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said he’d obviously just as soon have the court stay in Powell for his deputies and the general public.
Steward said Powell deputies may have to come on duty a half-hour earlier to make it to Cody court appearances when Powell’s court closes.
“It will cost us some overtime, a little travel,” said Steward, adding, “it’s not going to cripple us. It’s nothing we can’t live with.”
Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt is out of the office this week and unavailable for comment, but Powell police will likely face similar, if not greater impacts if the court closes.
Skoric and Steward said they both plan to maintain their offices at the annex.
The closure also could force the Powell and Cody municipal courts to relocate.
The cuts come on the heels of this year’s legislative budget session, in which the judiciary requested and the Legislature approved $388,800 in raises for the state’s Circuit Court judges. That was a $16,200 raise for each of the 24 judges. Wyoming judges’ pay had reportedly fallen behind other state employees and the cost of living.
The Legislature will consider the Supreme Court’s budget proposal during its General Session, which begins Jan. 8.
Editor's note: A figure in this story has been modified to include only the pay raises approved for Circuit Court judges. The story had previously included a $1.5 million figure that covered all the state's judges.