Hill County Justice Court has taken a step up to a new level, with a four-channel recording system preserving every hearing and trial to make it a Justice Court of Record.
“This holds this court accountable, ” Hill County Justice of the Peace Audrey Barger said. “Everything this court says goes on the record. It’s accountable for everything it says. It’s accountable for everything it does. ”
Barger requested the Hill County Commission to approve making Justice Court a court of record, and to invest $7,800 in recording equipment to do so. The commission passed that resolution, and the court formally became a Justice Court of Record Nov. 1.
Barger said, in the long run, the investment will save the county a considerable amount of money by changing how appeals from her court are handled. Those savings have been the primary reason justice courts have been becoming courts of record across the state, she said.
Before the change was made, every time someone appealed a Justice Court trial, a new trial — a “trial de novo” in legal terms — was held as if no trial already had occurred.
That can more than double the cost to the county, including payment of any court costs ordered in the Justice Court sentence disappearing and the new costs of the trial in District Court added on to the costs already incurred.
Montana District Judge Dan Boucher commended Barger for her work upgrading the justice court.
“The mutual expectation, and goal, is to reduce the overall burden on our respective systems …, ” he said. “I want to thank Judge Barger, and the commissioners for supporting her position on this, and we hope, overall, that it will be a benefit. ”
Making the justice court a court of record puts it in the same procedures as a municipal court. Under those rules, an appeal must specify what legal issue is being appealed — an appeal cannot simply request a verdict or order be overturned — and the recording and record is sent to the district judge for review.
Each side on the appeal has 15 days to brief their arguments, then the judge — with or without a formal hearing for presentation of oral arguments — makes a ruling on the appeal.
The district judge can affirm the court finding or order, amend it, or send the issue back to the court from which it was appealed for a new procedure.
It also opens up the process, Barger said. For a charge, anyone can receive a CD with the recording of any Hill County Justice Court procedure.
“This allows the public to come in and get copies of hearings …, ” she said. “It makes this whole court open to the public. ”