The Casper City Council wants more information before deciding whether to hire full-time judges at the municipal court — a move spurred on by conflict of interest concerns.
City Council members on Tuesday asked City Manager Carter Napier to bring back more details about the court including:
- the total cost of hiring two full-time judges and a part-timer instead of the three part-time judges and a substitute the court currently employs;
- whether a change to the judges’ employment status would impact alcohol court;
- what criteria judges use to recuse themselves from cases;
- how the court might be restructured to allow judges more oversight of court employees;
- and how much revenue the court collects.
Napier, who presented preliminary information on the court after researching a potential change to full-time judges with court manager Fleur Tremel, did not specify when he would return with the requested information.
The meeting comes after some prominent attorneys have said the existing system creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. That’s because municipal judges are permitted to work as local attorneys, meaning they could represent the city as a judge and then cross-examine a city police officer in another court.
District Attorney Michael Blonigen and local criminal-defense lawyer Ian Sandefer both wrote letters in November to the city manager and the City Council expressing concern with the current system.
“Especially if a private criminal practice is retained,” Blonigen wrote in his Nov. 20 letter. “It creates an impression that outcomes may be based on considerations other than the law and facts.”
Tuesday evening, Dallas Laird was the only City Council member who came down strongly on the issue, calling for the court to hire up to two full-time judges. He also called for the Casper Police Department to send all misdemeanor charges to the city’s court, which would presumably increase revenue generated by the city.
Napier’s presentation included a comparison to Cheyenne’s system, which currently employs a full-time judge, a part-time judge and another part-timer who handles juvenile matters. The juvenile judge is not a lawyer and Wyoming state law does not require municipal judges to have legal training.
Cheyenne pays its judges just under $158,000, Napier said, while Casper spends about $161,000 on its judges. Cheyenne is currently looking to hire a second full-time judge, which would increase the capital city’s cost to $273,000.
If the city changed its municipal court system but not its budget, it could pay a full-time judge $73,000 annually, provide $32,000 for his or her benefits, and pay a part-time judge at roughly the same rate they currently earn, Napier said. Napier noted that Casper’s benefits package would be significantly more expensive than Cheyenne’s, deflating the baseline salary for a full-time judge.
Napier said a full-time judge would more effectively avoid conflicts of interest by not practicing law privately. However, such a system could lead to other problems. The city manager cited the risk of burnout by having a judge who is effectively on call year-round.
“Having one judge, in my estimation, doesn’t work,” Napier said.
The city manager also said that alcohol court might not function effectively within the full-time model.
Laird expressed skepticism about the risk of burnout to a full-time judge, citing the 20-hour workweek in the current system. He also said the city should weigh the amount of revenue brought in by the court when considering limiting judges’ salaries to $160,000 total.
“I think to strap it all to that budget is not fair to our citizens,” Laird said.
Laird said he thinks the court brings in upwards of a million dollars a year. He did not offer details about how he calculated that number.
If the police department were to file all misdemeanors in municipal court, the increased caseload would necessitate two full-time judges, Laird said.
Casper Municipal Court Judge Rob Hand spoke briefly, saying that judges are on-call around the clock to handle warrants. He said doing so year-round would greatly increase the risk of burnout. Hand also said he could not recall the last time he was asked to recuse himself, but if he were asked to do so, he would.
Councilman Shawn Johnson said he did not come down strongly on either side of the issue, but that he wanted to ensure citizens’ rights and the constitution are protected.