OSWEGO — Labette County commissioners decided that the Labette County Judicial Center in Parsons will close to the public beginning Wednesday and will open only if a judge is scheduled to hear cases there.
Commissioners made the decision Monday after meeting in closed session for a total of 55 minutes with the county attorney, sheriff and county counselor. They said the decision will help save tax money. Commissioners say 11th Judicial District Chief Judge Oliver Kent Lynch didn’t give notice or consult with the county when deciding to move a judge from Parsons to Oswego effective last week.
Chief Judge Lynch moved Judge Fred W. Johnson from Parsons to Oswego to conduct his busy criminal and civil docket. Court generally takes place in Parsons at the Judicial Center, though judges hold court periodically in Oswego on the third floor of the courthouse. Magistrate Judge Samuel Marsh from Columbus conducts traffic court in Oswego monthly. The 11th District includes Labette, Cherokee and Crawford counties.
Chief Judge Lynch didn’t offer a reason for the move and court administrator Mac Young never responded to a Sun inquiry about it.
Having court in Parsons and Oswego is increasing overtime for the sheriff, who is responsible for court security. Sheriff Darren Eichinger had already budgeted for full-time security in Parsons, he said. Security was also available in Oswego when judges held court, but that was only a couple of times a month previously.
Eichinger has said doubling the security detail could cost the county $250,000 to $300,000, especially if he has to add deputies to cover security. The county attorney may have to make adjustments in technology and perhaps personnel to address the court change and the increased caseload in Oswego. The main office is in Parsons, where most of the cases have been heard because that’s where most of the crime takes place.
Closing the county-owned building in Parsons will impact the public. The court clerk’s and county attorney’s offices will remain open in the Judicial Center in Parsons, though the public cannot get in the building. People paying fines on traffic tickets or signing up for marriage licenses or conducting other business in the court clerk’s office will have to travel to Oswego. The court clerk’s office is staffed by state employees. The county attorney’s office is staffed by county employees.
If a judge is in the Judicial Center hearing cases in retired Judge Jeffry L. Jack’s courtroom, the building will be open. A nominating committee named three judges to replace Judge Jack and sent those names to Gov. Laura Kelly’s office on Jan. 10. Gov. Kelly has until March 10 to name Jack’s replacement. Senior judges have heard some cases in Judge Jack’s courtroom in January, but there has been no judge in the building full-time since Judge Johnson was reassigned.
Commissioners said they hope to settle the issue with Chief Judge Lynch before Judge Jack’s replacement begins work.
“Our objective was not to throw tax dollars at an issue. This was the best alternative we have been able to come up with” for Labette County and taxpayers, Commission Chairman Lonie Addis said.
“It’s either do this or spend a quarter of a million dollars we do not have,” Commissioner Doug Allen said.
Addis said the county attorney and the sheriff can make adjustments but the change still will cost money in the long haul.
“Hopefully we can resolve this,” Allen said.
Commissioners met in closed session a week ago to discuss court security and included Chief Judge Lynch in the session by phone.
Allen said commissioners will negotiate with Lynch, though they haven’t spoken to him since last week.
“We tried to negotiate with him last week and this is the outcome,” Allen said.
Commissioner Fred Vail said: “This has been one of the toughest decisions we’ve had to make since I’ve been on the commission. But we had to protect tax dollars.”
Vail said commissioners may have to consider shutting down the Judicial Center permanently and moving court operations to the third floor of the courthouse in Oswego. That would require moving the cartography department to the second floor and perhaps other changes.
“It’s just an alternative. It’s something that we have to consider,” Vail said.
In their statement, commissioners say they are open to discussing alternative solutions with the presiding judge.
“These changes are made, unfortunately, due to the press of time (the Sheriff is already expending overtime to staff both locations) with the same courtesy and notice Judge Lynch gave us. …
“We hope this will be temporary, but Judge Lynch gave us no hint as to a timeline,” the commissioners’ statement said.
“We realize this is an imposition and inconvenience on the citizens of Labette County, but absent finding a quarter of a million dollars to run two separate court houses we have no choice if we are to keep taxes at their current level, which are already too high.
“The commission believes different areas of government should work together to achieve the goal of service to our citizens. We have been unable to do so in this situation; the 11th Judicial District being uncooperative.
“Unfortunately, the judiciary in Kansas sometimes acts without consideration of, or respect for, elected” officials’ duties, the statement concludes.