Johnson County’s judicial district to receive three new judges

The main entrance to the Johnson County courthouse. File image.

The judicial district for Johnson County came out an unexpected winner in the new state budget recently signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, District Court Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan told the Johnson County Commission Thursday.

The details: The state budget will fund three additional judges for the 10th District, which comprises Johnson County. It’s the first time a district court judge has been added since 2007, Ryan said, adding that funding for three was a boon he never expected. The county has grown by more than 86,000 people since the last new judge was added, he said. It currently has 19 district judges.

“It is long past due and we are very appreciative of it,” he said.

The budget, which had bi-partisan backing, adds 23 new district and magistrate judges statewide and gives a five percent pay raise to state employees, including judges.

Pandemic delays: The addition is expected to help with a backlog of cases due to the pandemic. Jury trials were halted twice in recent years due to pandemic concerns, resulting in a pile up of cases of all types.

To catch up, Ryan said, jury trials in the criminal division are now being scheduled every other week and are booked through January of next year. Court Administrator Laura Brewer said some 500 jury trials have been scheduled for this year and next for juvenile, civil and criminal cases. The district has also been increasing in-person hearings, she said.

Population growth: But even before the pandemic, Johnson County was in need of more judges because of its growth, he said. Ryan referenced a 2019 Judicial Workload Study by the National Center for State Courts that said the district needed nine new judges to handle its dockets in a timely way.

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft asked whether population growth was an accurate predictor of how many judges the district needs. He noted that the average number of filings has been trending downward, with 60,000 a year from 2008-10 and 50,000 the past three years.

“I am not sure I necessarily agree with the nine (new judges) or for that matter the three just based upon filings,” he said.

But Ryan said the number of cases filed alone can be deceiving when it comes to predicting workload. For instance, during the Great Recession, he said, the family court system saw a big increase in the number of people representing themselves rather than hiring a lawyer. Often, those cases end up taking more time, he said.

Timeline: It will be at least a couple of months before the new judges begin work. First the 10th Judicial Nominating Commission will come up with recommendations to be sent to the governor, who makes the appointments. Funding for them becomes available July 1.