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Two counties to move circuits under court-backed plan

Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III on Jan. 22 formally unveiled the judiciary’s plans to move two rural counties into new judicial circuits.

In his State of the Judiciary speech before a joint session of the Missouri House and Senate, Draper said the court system recommends moving Benton County, now part of the 30th Circuit in west-central Missouri, to the adjacent 27th Circuit. The plan also calls for Carter County, now part of the 37th Circuit in southeastern Missouri, to move next door to the 36th Circuit.

George W. Draper

Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III discusses the plan to revise judicial circuits during his State of the Judiciary address. Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House

Draper said the move would reduce driving time between courthouses within the multi-county circuits, among other benefits.

“Less time behind the wheel means more time on the bench to serve our citizens,” Draper said in his speech, his first to the General Assembly since he became chief justice in July.

The proposed shifts are the result of a bill passed in 2013 that called for the Judicial Conference of Missouri to redraw circuit boundaries every 20 years, starting in 2020. Many of the current circuits have gone unchanged since 1959. The law requires the boundaries to be based on such factors as judges’ workloads and the geography and population of the circuits.

Under the plan, the court-drafted circuit map would go into effect automatically on Jan. 1, unless lawmakers vote to reject the changes. Increasing or reducing the number of judges or circuits remains the legislature’s task — as happened in 2016, when a bill passed to split Taney County from the 38th Circuit, creating the new 46th Circuit.

Draper said a 16-member task force studied the circuit realignment for two years. The resulting report was approved last year by the Judicial Conference and presented to the legislature earlier this month.

Carter County shares the 37th Circuit with Shannon, Oregon and Howell counties — one of five circuits in the state that comprise four counties. Under the plan, it would join Ripley and Butler counties, leaving the 36th and 37th circuits each with three counties. Draper said it also would allow Carter County to share a circuit with the city of Poplar Bluff, where most area residents already conduct business.

In an interview, Judge Michael Pritchett, the presiding judge of the 36th Circuit, said most of his trials occur in more populous Butler County, where Poplar Bluff is located. He believes he would have to travel to Carter County only a few times a month. However, he said there initially was talk of moving a fourth county under his jurisdiction, which he resisted.

The report rejected a proposal to move Wayne County, which is one of five counties in the neighboring 42nd Circuit. Pritchett said a four-county area would have made his circuit too hard to cover.

“It’s just a matter of time, is what it comes down to,” he said. “We can make it work. It’s just the time to be able to do it, and do it the way that I want to.”

Pritchett said he still had questions about when the change would take effect. He is up for election in November, and he said it wasn’t clear if Carter County residents would be able to vote for the 36th Circuit’s presiding judge — or if candidates from that county could run for the office.

The Judicial Conference’s plan calls for the realignment of Benton County to occur on Jan. 1, 2022, and the realignment of Carter County one year after that. The 2013 bill pre-emptively repealed all of the current statutory definitions for the circuits, effective Dec. 31 of this year, however, and it states that the judiciary’s plan would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021 unless the legislature intervenes.

Benton County is in one of the state’s five-county circuits. The plan would have Benton share the 27th Circuit with Bates, Henry and St. Clair counties. That would leave Hickory, Polk, Dallas and Webster counties in the 30th Circuit. Draper said the move would cut down on driving distances within the circuit, which stretches from the Truman Lake area to east of Springfield.

The 27th Circuit’s M. Brandon Baker, whom the governor appointed to the bench last year to fill a vacancy, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Rep. Warren Love, R-Osceola, who represents the district that includes the southern half of Benton County, said the move seemed to be a good fit. He said he doubted there would be any opposition in the legislature.

“There sure hasn’t been any that I’ve heard about, and I know there won’t be any from me,” he said.

Rep. Jeff Shawan, R-Poplar Bluff, whose district includes Carter County, said he wanted to investigate some of the effects of the move, but he also said he believed opposition was unlikely.

Other than the 42nd Circuit, the only other change the task force said it considered was consolidating the St. Louis County and City circuit courts.

“This motion did not garner much support among the Task Force members, but whether such consolidation would increase judicial efficiencies in those circuits justifies further consideration,” the report notes.

Call for funding

Draper also used the speech to call for additional funding for the court system. He asked lawmakers to approve an additional $2.8 million in funding for court technology and urged pay raises for court employees, saying it was not fair for them “to live below the value of their service.”

He also urged lawmakers to better fund the public defender system, which has complained for years of a lack of funding.

“Speaking from the perspective of both a former prosecutor and a former trial judge, I can tell you the system simply does not work without a sufficiently funded and staffed public defender system,” he said. Draper was an assistant circuit attorney in St. Louis before becoming one of the rare judges to serve at every level of Missouri’s judiciary. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2011.

Draper also is only the second African-American judge to sit on the Supreme Court. He gave a shout-out to the first, now-U.S. District Judge Ronnie White, who attended the speech. Draper also used the occasion to remind lawmakers of how much Missouri has changed since its admittance to the Union as a slave state.

“History is the tie that binds,” he said.

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