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Collaboration Through Shared Municipal Court Services

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brian J. McLaughlin
May 5, 2015

the court - Brian J. McLaughlinNationwide, the fiscal challenges facing all levels of government are serious and enduring. To reduce costs and facilitate efficiency, more communities than before collaborate to share, connect or join services, including courts. While efficiency and cost savings may lead municipalities to explore shared court services, preserving the mission of an independent judiciary and the quality of the administration of justice is essential.

Collaboration and Shared Services

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology research fellow Michael Schrage argues that real collaboration cannot happen without shared spaces. Due to institutional similarities, local governments in particular have a unique opportunity to collaborate. Shared or joint services help establish the administration dimension, described by scholars Ann Marie Thomson and James L. Perry as some kind of structure that moves the collaboration from governance to action.

Today, local governments collaborate to share services through agreements ranging from informal sharing to formal legal contracts. State laws authorize municipalities to share services and typically include criteria for completing a shared agreement. Some criteria can be to hold public hearings, pass a resolution or ordinance and/or seek voter approval through a referendum. State governments, such as New York, provide best practices to inform local governments contemplating shared services.

Municipal Courts

Court consultant Janet G. Cornell describes municipal or limited jurisdiction courts as those with legal authority over very specific subject matter, cases or persons for the imposition of limited jail times or financial sanctions. According to the Court Statistics Project of the National Center for State Courts, two out of every three cases in the United States are processed in a limited jurisdiction court. While the offenses handled by these courts can be perceived as minor, they can significantly impact lives. For example, municipal court violations can negatively affect employment background checks or a driver’s car insurance rates.

Shared Court Arrangements                                            

Shared court services involve all three branches of government and require collaboration between municipal administration and other county and state government. Like other local government services, several options are available. Trial Court Administrator Jude Del Preore and co-authors describe three shared municipal court services arrangements:

  • Joint or Consolidated Courts Two or more municipal courts combine to form one entity. This includes the consolidation of court business and personnel. Joint courts are easiest to manage, but hardest to separate due to the combined case and fiscal management.
  • Shared Courts Two or more municipalities share court resources, including judges, staff, facilities and technology. Each court maintains their own administrative identity, including case files and financial management.
  • Sharing Services Without a formal legal agreement, municipalities informally lend court equipment (i.e., security devices) and technology (i.e., videoconferencing) to neighboring courts.

Utilizing these models can be a voluntary decision. As an example, after rigorous debate, California voters in 1988 approved a statewide constitutional amendment consolidating all municipal and county-level superior courts. In each state, the administrative office of the courts can provide a wealth of information vital in planning, implementing and evaluating shared municipal court services. A number of jurisdictions, including St. Lawrence County, New York, use third-party feasibility studies to inform the decision-making and planning processes.

Areas of Collaboration

Convening and operating shared court services requires collaboration in three main areas:

  • Cooperation within municipal government – Strongly influenced by local politics and elected officials, department heads and administrators have to collaborate internally to support the shared arrangement. Particularly in the planning phrase, fostering relationships with elected officials is a best practice for public administrators in local service partnerships. In addition to judges and court staff, shared services require coordination of human resources, information technology, buildings and grounds, police and emergency dispatch. Each plays a valuable role in supporting the court process.
  • Connecting with the community – The administrative fractioning of cities and towns through shared services does risk the loss of civic identity. The tradition of home rule and proximity to citizens can be strained when local services are provided by other governments. Cultivating support from the community can assist in selecting the appropriate model and is especially crucial for the success of any ballot measures.
  • Intergovernmental Management – Finding the right collaborative partner may be obvious through geography, existing relationships or other strategic factors. The judicial branch in each state, for example Georgia, establishes standards and policies to follow closely. Negotiated agreements are needed for operational details, including facility usage, information technology, employee classification and financial management practices. Another vital determination is the establishing the judicial selection process. Once implemented, mutually agreed upon evaluation points help assess the quantitative and qualitative value of shared court services.

Writing in the International City/County Management Association’s Public Management magazine, Richard Dale argued that in shared services, “Managers should focus goals with the understanding that the primary mission can be to improve the quality and the efficiency of the services delivered – entirely separate from the issue of cost cutting.” Administering the judicial branch is vastly different from sharing heavy duty equipment or police services. Ultimately, collaboration through shared municipal court services seeks to balance the mission of the administration of justice with the overall best interests of the community. 

This article presents the personal views of the author, and does not represent the New Jersey Judiciary

Author: Brian J. McLaughlin, M.S., M.P.A. is an adjunct faculty member in the Master of Public Administration program at Villanova University. He has administrative experience with courts at the local, state and federal levels.

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