By Nick Worth
The four divisions of the Navajo County Superior Court handle a wide variety, and a large number, of cases each day.
According to Presiding Judge Michala Ruechel, who is the judge for the Division IV court, she and her fellow judges Ralph Hatch, John Lamb and Robert Higgins hear cases involving crimes, child welfare, juvenile offenses, civil cases, accidents, contracts, medical malpractice, probates and personal injury, among others. And the caseload is growing.
“We had 7,000 new assignments between Nov. 1 of 2012 and Nov. 1 of this year,” said Ruechel. “And those were on top of all the ongoing cases. The justice courts do more than that.”
Ruechel clarified that an “assignment” could be something as simple as verifying a signature on a document, or a full-fledged case.
“Some cases take a lot longer than others,” Ruechel said. “A major medical malpractice case won’t be done in a year.”
She also said a lot of cases are handled by the justice courts. In the case of personal injury cases, it depends on a dollar limit. Anything over $10,000 goes to the Superior Court.
Ruechel also noted that the Clerk of the Courts office has processed 269,000 pages of documents in the year to date.
“Probably 75 percent of that number is brought to a judge’s attention,” she said.
Asked if another court division might be needed to handle the cases, Ruechel said there are some roadblocks to forming another division.
“The caseload has gone up, but the number of court divisions is based on population,” said Ruechel. She said Arizona law calls for one Superior Court division per 30,000 people.
“I checked the 2012 census and it showed 107,000 residents in Navajo County,” said Ruechel. She said the county’s population would need to go over 120,000 before another court division could be formed.
She also noted that there is a way to get around that requirement.
“What some counties have done is to appoint a commissioner, Ruechel said. “A commissioner has to have all the qualifications of a judge. They need to be an attorney and need to have practiced law for a certain number of years.”
She explained that commissioners are paid at the same rate as a judge, so there are no monetary savings in appointing one instead of forming a new division. It is only a way to get around the population requirement.
Ruechel added that appointing a full-time commissioner is not as easy as simply hiring one, as a number of other considerations would need to be addressed, such as clerical personnel for the commissioner, office space and a courtroom to hear cases.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the money,” Ruechel said, but noted that the court does have a part-time commissioner, Dan Healy, who helps handle some of the caseload.
“Grants can fund a position sometimes, but they can’t stretch enough to cover hiring a full-time commissioner,” Ruechel said.
In the meantime, despite the rising caseload, Ruechel and her fellow judges divide up the work.
“I handle 90 percent of the juvenile cases and about 95 percent of the dependencies (Child Protective Services cases),” said Ruechel. “The other judges do the adult criminal cases, and we split the civil, probate and domestic relations cases, such as divorces and child custody, and sometimes property cases.”
There are also some “specialty courts” that operate within the four divisions of Superior Court, including the Drug Court and the Restitution Court.
“We’ve had a Mental Health Court in the past,” Ruechel said, further explaining that a specialty court is established “when there is a specific population in need of it.”
One idea currently working its way through the court is the establishment of a special Veterans Court.
“We’re putting together a focus group to determine where the need is, in the Justice Courts or the Superior Court,” Ruechel said. She noted that the focus group is working with the Veterans Administration to determine what services they can offer.
“We’re trying to determine what the need is and whether we can meet the needs of the people,” Ruechel said. “We’re at the very beginning stages.”
She noted that she and the other Superior Court judges work hard at their jobs.
“All the judges feel it’s worthwhile and a calling they’ve been called upon to do,” said Ruechel.
“I hope the public feels we’re working hard and handling their cases in a timely manner,” Ruechel said. “Litigation is not a simple thing.”
By Nick Worth