Just outside the Greene County Courthouse (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

The prosecuting attorney raised a staffing issue in February. More than six months later, the attorneys who prosecute crime suspects in Greene County still need help.

It’s not just a shortage of prosecutors, but a string of judges retiring at the same time that means Greene County’s circuit court system is likely to face a slowdown for at least the remainder of 2022. Whether it’s a civil or a criminal case, it’s likely to be subject to short staffing and longer-than-usual progress through the system.

Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson briefed the county commission on staffing on Sept. 27. Patterson said there are nine vacancies for attorneys in the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Four new hires just passed the bar exam, with a fifth intending to take the Missouri bar exam in February and stay on the staff as an assistant prosecutor.

“The passage rate for Missouri is the lowest it’s ever been, 71 percent, which I would guess is probably a COVID reflection,” Patterson said. “You’re talking about a class of people who did about a year and a half of law school by video — probably not the best way to do law school.”

Patterson is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and says his colleagues across the state are experiencing similar difficulties with having enough staff. There are legal job vacancies across the state, at private civil law firms and in government work.

A fresh-out-of-law-school attorney with no experience can sign on at the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for a starting salary of $58,572.80 per year.

Patterson has the budget to staff 38 attorneys in the office’s criminal division, though the staffing total is 31, resulting in nine unpaid salaries for the fiscal budget. He hopes to redirect some funds to reward the attorneys who are working.

“When it’s budget time, I may ask you to reinvest some of that in the office in terms of things other than personnel to make the fewer personnel more effective,” Patterson told the commissioners.

A pie chart taken from the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office budget for 2022 shows that 97.42 percent of the office’s budget is scheduled to be spent on employee salaries and benefits. The budget includes wages for 38 attorneys in the criminal division. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Judges also in short supply

Staffing in the prosecutor’s office is one of several factors for how quickly or how slowly any given case proceeds through Greene County’s court system. A shortage of judges atop a shortage of prosecutors is also likely to slow cases in the coming fall and winter months.

The circuit has six circuit judge and six associate circuit judge positions, though one of the circuit judge spots is vacant.

“We’re going to replace the entire Greene County circuit bench, all six judges over the course of the next nine months,” Patterson said. “The schedule to do that is not super speedy.”

On Sept. 9, Circuit Judge Becky J.W. Borthwick of Springfield was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District. Gov. Mike Parson made a move the same day to appoint Judge Jerry A. Harmison Jr. to the 31st Judicial Circuit, effectively promoting Harmison from associate judge to circuit judge.

Harmison replaced Judge Calvin Holden. Applications to fill Harmison’s now vacant position in associate circuit court are due Oct. 21, and interviews won’t be done until Nov. 21. Applications for a vacancy created when Judge Borthwick resigned are due by the end of business Sept. 30.

“They’re not interviewing until Nov. 2 and 3, so the earliest we have our next one appointed would be Nov. 3, likely, when the commission gives those results to the governor,” Patterson said.

Circuit Judge Thomas Mountjoy announced in a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court that he intends to retire on the final day of October.

After serving as a judge in Greene County for nearly 15 years, Circuit Judge Michael J. Cordonnier submitted a notification of retirement to the governor’s office in early August.

Circuit Judge Jason Brown submitted a letter to Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Wilson stating he would not run for retention in the November election, and that he intends to allow his term to expire at the end of 2022.

“When you look at the Borthwick, Mountjoy, Brown and Cordonnier vacancies that are going to occur over the next four months, it looks like there is going to be some significant delay where we don’t have four missing circuit judges,” Patterson said.

With such heavy turnover, Patterson told the Greene County Commission that now is a good time to pause and put care into planning the future of the courts in Greene County.

“Hopefully the court engages in some strategic planning with various stakeholders and I think it’s a huge opportunity for us to look really critically at the justice system in Greene County and find better ways to do things to move the ball forward,” Patterson said.

Patterson said that strategic thinking applies to delays that were happening in the court system before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Greene County and caused public health and safety concerns and illnesses that caused delays to court cases.

Court appearances by video

Just outside of the newly built Greene County Jail. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

In mid-May 2022, the new Greene County Jail and sheriff’s office opened in northwest Springfield off of West Division Street and Haseltine Road. It’s about six road miles away from the former jail and the Greene County Courthouse complex.

In criminal proceedings, deputies shuttle inmates from the jail to the courthouse so the inmates can make their court appearances. Some hearings are conducted by video teleconferencing, but inmates have the right to waive video hearings and appear in person for certain hearings.

Greene County Commissioner Rusty MacLachlan asked Patterson about how effective teleconferencing is in speeding up the court docket on any given day, especially with turnover in the judge positions.

“It helps us on routine matters, but in terms of actually moving the cases, video doesn’t play a huge component in that,” Patterson said. “Many guilty pleas and sentencings, the defendant needs to be in person, so we still have to bring them over from the jail.”

With the pending retirements and promotions of judges in Greene County, cases are being passed from retiring judges to active judges, with rescheduling happening on the fly.

“We’ll continue to try to dispose of cases as we can during this slow down, but the trial dockets, in particular, will slow down,” Patterson said. “Right now, we have to deconflict a lot of dockets.”

How the justice system is funded

In 1997, voters enacted a 1/4-cent law enforcement sales tax, expected to generate almost $17 million in 2022. A 37-percent portion of that sales tax, or $6.12 million, is split among the juvenile court, prosecuting attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and jail, and for maintenance of a two-way radio system.

A 1/8-cent law enforcement sales tax enacted by voters in 2012 is expected to generate $8.36 million. Again, the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is one of several law enforcement offices expected to take money from the sales tax revenue. However, none of the funding from the 1/8-cent sales tax is allocated for salaries, according to the yearly budget documents.

Salaries and benefits make up more than 96 percent of the prosecuting attorney’s overall budget of $3.8 million in Greene County.

On Nov. 7, 2017, Greene County voters approved a 1/2-cent general sales tax increase, with about 60 percent of the voters approving it. In spite of the extra funding, the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Great Recession” that COVID ushered into the job market created openings at entry-level attorney positions because experienced lawyers decided to leave public service for other opportunities.

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger