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Eighth Judicial District awaits word on request to replace judge

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MONTEVIDEO -- The retirement of district Judge Bruce Christopherson at the start of the year has reduced to 10 the number of judges serving the 13 counties in the rural Eighth Judicial District.

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His departure from the bench in Yellow Medicine County starts a process that is the cause for some apprehension in the district, which has the smallest complement of judges among the state's 10 judicial districts.

It is no longer automatic that a retiring judge be replaced, and the state's latest deficit projection adds another element of uncertainty to what might happen.

New state law requires that the state Supreme Court cannot certify a judicial vacancy until it has examined alternative op-tions, according to the chief judge for the district, Paul Nelson of Montevideo.

The options the court must consider including looking at whether a retired judge could temporarily fill the position.

That's a very good possibility here, as Judge Christopherson has indicated his willingness to continue serving on a temporary basis.

But his return to the bench on a temporary basis -- if approved by the Supreme Court -- cannot happen any earlier than May.

Due to the state's budget problems, the judicial branch is leaving vacant for four months the positions of any retired judge, Nelson said.

The biggest concern is long term: The state's high court could decide to eliminate the position within the Eighth District and transfer it to another district. Judicial districts serving urban areas are seeing population and case load increases.

The Eighth Judicial District has recorded a decrease in court activities, and its rural counties are seeing population losses.

The state Supreme Court will not make any decision until after it reviews the results of a weighted case study that judges across the state participated in during 2009. The results of that study will likely reach the court sometime in February.

In the meanwhile, the remaining 10 judges are adjusting to the loss of a position. At the onset, it means more travel time for Judges Nelson and David Mennis of Benson. They are traveling more frequently to Granite Falls and Montevideo, respectively.

The urgency with which the district views the need to return to a full complement of judges can be seen in its request to the Supreme Court for a new appointment. The request was due by Jan. 11, but reached the Supreme Court offices on Dec. 18.

Judge Nelson said the district believes it has shown the need for retaining 11 judges in the district.

He said it is also important to the district to fill the position in Yellow Medicine County. Court activity numbers there support the replacement, he said.

If the Supreme Court certifies the position, it will be several months before the selection process leads to an appointment by the governor.

All the while, the district is also bracing for fiscal reductions no matter the decision on the Yellow Medicine County position. The state's budget deficit projection has already led to a directive to many state agencies to look for ways to trim their 2010 budgets by 3 percent and 2011 budgets by 5 percent.

The Legislature could very well order the court system to prepare for similar budget reductions.

In response, a panel of judges will be meeting soon to look at ways to reduce the types of cases that would be heard in the courts.

The Eighth District will also repeat the dilemma of losing a judge at the end of this year, when Judge Peter Hoff, Breckenridge, reaches the mandatory retirement age. His retirement could leave the northwest corner of the district without a seated judge. The northwest counties are the least populated in the district and pose some of the greatest challenges in terms of staffing. In Big Stone County, there is only one court employee.

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