The Wyoming Supreme Court had proposed closing those courts by July 1 as a cost-saving measure, but the idea ran into staunch opposition in the affected communities.
Joint Appropriations co-chairman Eli Bebout, a Republican Senator from Riverton, spearheaded the effort to save the three courts from closure.
Bebout’s proposed budget footnote directs Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite to work with the Powell, Lovell and Dubois courts to find savings, but also provides funding for the courts to stay open as they are if no agreement is reached.
Bebout said the footnote was “kind of a negotiated thing between the chief justice and myself.”
The Joint Appropriations Committee made the footnote a part of its recommended budget on a clear majority vote, though audio of the meeting indicated at least one committee member opposed the measure.
The budget will soon be considered by the full House and Senate.
Of the three courts proposed for closure, Powell’s is the most used, and its closure would save the least by far, according to Supreme Court calculations.
Court administrators estimate they would save approximately $4,225 per year in office expenses and mileage by closing Powell’s office. The court said closing Powell’s office would save another $21,000 in equipment and technology every six years.
That’s an average savings of about $7,225 a year.
For comparison, Supreme Court administrators calculated that closing the office in Lovell would save $24,387 per year, and the closure in Dubois would mean an average of $42,475 of annual savings.
Park County commissioners have been a leading voice of opposition to the proposed Powell court closure, though others, including Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric, voiced concern with the proposal.
In a letter to Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite last week, commissioners noted the inconvenience to citizens, Powell police officers and Park County Sheriff’s deputies if they have to travel to Cody for court instead of staying in Powell. While closing the court would mean four to five fewer Cody-Powell trips for the court each week, the commission argued it ultimately means more Powell-Cody trips overall.
“The time and cost of this public and private travel would seem to greatly exceed any savings to your budget,” wrote the commission in its Jan. 15 letter.
Commissioners also said there’s no room in the Park County Courthouse to house the Powell files and equipment.
The Park and Big Horn County commissions had offered to cover the costs to keep the Powell and Lovell courts open, respectively. In her State of the Judiciary address to lawmakers, however, Kite had flatly rejected that idea.
The state’s top judge said taking county money “would be absolutely the wrong approach and counter to the direction we all took over 20 years ago to implement a uniform, state-funded court system.”
Expanding on that idea in a Jan. 14 interview with the Tribune, Court Administrator Joann Odendahl said one reason for transitioning from county-run to state-run courts was to treat everyone equally.
She said other communities around the state have as far or further to travel than the residents in Powell (24 miles to Cody) and Lovell (40 miles to Basin).
“We’re trying to treat all the counties similar,” she said.
Park County commissioners rejected that argument in their letter.
“Taking away a court that has existed historically for Powell, justified by the idea that it makes Powell citizens ‘even’ with those other Wyoming citizens who suffer the inconvenience of distant courts, appears to be strained logic and a step backward, rather than forward, in a Wyoming tradition of attempting to provide citizens with access to the legal system,” they wrote.
Commissioners noted several other counties still have multiple circuit courts, and they said Powell compares favorably when you look at cases that actually require an individual to physically appear in court.
For example, Powell had 408 “must appear” citations in the past fiscal year, while Cody had 560.
The Powell court currently has more limited functions to reflect its smaller caseload: the office is open only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, court is held only on Tuesdays and every other Friday, and all civil filings go through the Cody office.
Court data indicates there are enough cases in Powell to justify a position, but Odendahl said closure would boost efficiency while cutting costs. Further, administrators were projecting online payments on traffic citations would reduce Powell’s workload in the future, Odendahl said.
One argument Kite used to explain the proposed closure appears to have been simply not true.
In a Jan. 4 letter to commissioners, Kite noted Judge Waters must travel from Cody to Powell to hold court on Tuesdays and every other Friday.
“This often causes a need to pay a magistrate in Cody to perform the judge’s duties while he is in Powell,” Kite wrote.
In actuality, Waters takes care of the Cody matters on Tuesday and Friday mornings before heading to Powell. Thus, no magistrate is needed.
“According to our records, we have not paid a magistrate to work in Cody while the judge was conducting court in Powell,” said Chief Park County Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Farman.
Odendahl said she’d later been told there might have been one or two instances over the years.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have said often” in referring to times a magistrate has to appear in Cody because of court in Powell, Odendahl said, but she added that a magistrate does have to travel to Powell — like Waters does — when filling in for the judge on a Powell court day.
Odendahl said she believed the last Circuit Court closure came in the late 1990s, when an office in Hanna (pop. 841) was closed.
If Powell’s court shut down, it would be by far the largest community in the state to not have its own Circuit Court.
Powell court remains open
While state legislators and Supreme Court officials mull the future of Powell’s Circuit Court, it remains open and is doing business as usual at the Powell Annex.
Park County Chief Clerk of Circuit Court Peggy Farman said many people have been coming to the Cody office thinking they can no longer make court payments in Powell.
In actuality, “the Powell office continues to be open and operating as normal,” Farman said.
The Supreme Court has proposed closing the office, but the earliest that would take place is July. Further, a legislative committee is recommending the court stay open indefinitely.