Caseload pushes city judge to full-time work

Sunday, August 24, 2008 | 5:18 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — All eight people sat quietly. Some sat nervously. A boy sitting alone on the last wooden bench in the Columbia Municipal Courtroom held his head in his hands and pinched his sinuses.

“All rise.”

Judge Robert Aulgur, wearing his black robe, entered to a somber, standing audience then took a seat in the black leather chair behind a towering wooden bench at the front of the room on Thursday. 

For 17 minutes, without pause, he explained how the court would proceed. His tone and his gestures were like those of a stewardess telling the umpteenth group of passengers where to find the emergency exits on the aircraft.

He could fine them between $1 and $1,000. He could sentence them to the Boone County Jail for any amount of time between one day and one year. Should they owe the court money when they left, he would accept cash, check or credit card (except for American Express or Discover). Gradually the eight bodies became 12, the 12 became 16. The judge started to work through their cases.

The first person called was fined and thanked for her time. The second got to leave without charge. The third had been to the court 23 times in the past three years; when Aulgur asked him why, the judge referred to the place as “my” courtroom.

These were just a handful of the roughly 17,000 cases that will move through Municipal Court this year; the caseload is divided among Aulgur and two associate judges. When Aulgur started the job in 2003, the caseload was closer to 12,000. In order to combat this rising workload, the Columbia City Council approved a resolution at its last meeting to make Aulgur a full-time employee for the first time since his initial appointment.

“This job has definitely become a full-time position. It has been for some time,” Aulgur said in an interview earlier this week. He explained that even though he was only being paid as a 0.9 full-time-equivalent employee, he had — and still has — to be accessible “essentially 24/7.”

Part of this workload increase came years ago. In July 2004, changes in bond-setting procedure required that the municipal judge personally determine the bonds in every case. The Missouri Supreme Court rule was meant to create “more uniformity between the courts,” court clerk Shara Meyer said.

Aulgur recalls the disparity in the way rural communities dealt with marijuana cases when he was an attorney and how the city deals with them now. The differences in bond-setting could mean thousands of dollars and jail time for one person and a small fine and release for an identical offender, he said.  

Although it makes more work for him, Aulgur believes the bonding change was a good one.

“We should not delegate to police officers or other non-judicial personnel” in setting bonds, he said. Although he’s happy to do it, he conceded it can be a hassle. He recalled times when he had to set bonds at 3 a.m. or in the middle of a family vacation in Florida.

Aulgur also cited a “population upsurge” as a contributing factor in the rising caseload. Growth in the city leads to an increase in the number of police officers, which inevitably means more Municipal Court cases, he said. The population of Columbia has increased almost 20 percent since 2000. 

Meyer said the caseload fluctuates, citing the larger amount of assault cases that occurred in the sweltering heat of early summer.

“But we always tend to fluctuate up,” Aulgur said with a smile.

“We believe the caseload will continue to grow,” he added. He thinks that once the city installs cameras to catch people running red lights at some of its busiest intersections, the caseload will spike even higher.

Aulgur’s new salary will be $82,528. His is one of the few salaries over which the mayor and City Council have complete discretion. Unlike most government employees, there is no set minimum or maximum for his pay. His initial salary in 2003 was $60,001.

Back in the courtroom Thursday, Aulgur finished dealing with the 23-time offender, then interrogated a first-time shoplifter, asking her what was going through her head when she stole clothes from Wal-Mart.

She blamed it on her sister. He gave her a suspended sentence, told her to do some community service, then moved to the next case.

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