The judges asked for it. And now Kansas City’s Municipal Court has received its ruling.
The court could become more efficient, serving the public better, if practices were more standardized and courtrooms operated less like silo operations, a creation of each judge’s individualized style, said the report by the National Center for State Courts.
“Of those interviewed, both judges and staff commented on the lack of structure concerning the development and implementation and interpretation of new and existing policies and procedures,” the report said.
If this was a report card, it would be a B. The commissioned study commenced with the OK of the judges. Findings praised efforts to manage a growing caseload, especially through technology (the courts went paperless three years ago), and staff commitment to improvement. But it also made plenty of recommendations.
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Kansas City’s is the state’s largest municipal court. It has eight full-time judges, one part-time judge and about 75 employees. Of the approximately 200,000 cases the court handles annually, by far the most common are traffic violations. Such cases number more than 180,000. Spokeswoman Benita Jones said the staff is looking at which recommendations will be acted on first.
Overall, the court was found to be “a court with good practices in place.” Yet large dockets add to difficulty hearing and wasted time when names are called and not heard. Few cases, less than 10 percent, proceed to trial at the first appearance. So the report questioned some procedures, such as the arresting officer and witnesses initially being present.
“Procedures should be designed for the most common events or outcomes,” the report said, “not for the least common.”
In addition, the report questioned why non-court activities such as plea negotiations and attorneys conferencing with clients were occurring in the courtrooms. Beyond that, the courthouse is more than 40 years old, with related problems of accessibility.
Recommendations included expanding the presiding judge’s tenure from a one-year to a two-year term to allow leadership time to gain momentum. It applauded the use of bench meetings to bring people from Legal Aid of Western Missouri, police and prosecutors together in search of solutions. But that practice risks violating the state’s sunshine law.
Meetings were “infrequent, convened on an irregular or sporadic schedule and included department heads from other justice entities.” This relaxed, non-formalized structure means that decisions may not be carried out as intended, the report found. As a remedy, the report’s authors suggested the court develop a governance policy or charter.
The authors also called for reviews of specialty courts set up to handle mental health, veterans’ treatment, domestic violence, drug cases and housing. And finally, it noted that each judge tends to have their “own style and practice for processing cases,” noting that this needs to be assessed to see whose style impedes efficiency — meaning it’s the judges who will have to submit to some judging.