Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Few judges still ride circuits; fewer have hat holders

Not too long ago, almost all rural judges traveled a circuit of courthouses to deliver once-a-month justice in communities far from city centers. Now, in the wake of urban sprawl and added judgeships, most judges are fixed to a single courtroom, but a handful still keep the tradition of their title's definition alive. John Glionna of the Los Angeles Times writes a good profile of the new judge in Nevada's 5th District (Wikipedia map) that could be an example to the rural reporters in areas where judges still roam, especially in the West.

Judge Kim Wanker ("Wahn-ker," the Times notes) travels her mostly rural district once a month on a highway that "is a straight line into the desert's nothingness, where cows begrudgingly relinquish their spots on the hot asphalt," Glionna writes. She is "one of a dwindling number of judges who still wander the West's wide-open spaces." Most of Montana's 56 counties are served by traveling judges; budget cuts threaten the practice in Wyoming, which may force litigants to come to the judges, not the other way around.

Wanker's 5th District covers just Nye, Mineral and Esmeralda counties, but that's 25,000 square miles, an area larger than West Virginia. Most of the district's 50,000 people live in one town, leaving an average of just 3 people per square mile for the rest of the district.

It takes Wanker, left, three days or more to make her circuit of more than 600 miles. She stops at courthouses in small towns like Goldfield, Tonopah and Hawthorne, where she hears between 60 and 80 cases a trip. She oversees procedings in Goldfield's 1907 courtroom, complete with an original steel judge's bench and observer chairs with metal Stetson hat holders. Defendants have changed over the years from vagrants and cattle rustlers to drug dealers, alcohol abusers and domestic-violence offenders, but Glionna reports that Wanker still holds them to an old-school standard: "Stand up and be accountable for your own failures." (Read more)

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