Commissioners weighing future of SH Justice Court

Sean C. Morgan

The Linn County Board of Commissioners is considering whether to close the Sweet Home Justice Court, due to its low level of activity.

The board discussed the issue during its regular meeting on Oct. 2 but has not taken action.

Sweet Home’s Justice Court has jurisdiction over traffic, boating, wildlife and other violations occurring in areas of the community outside of the city limits. It also can hear small claims and some civil cases in which damages do not exceed $7,500. The court is established by the County Commission. It works concurrently with the Municipal Court, which hears cases involving violations and misdemeanors within the city limits, and the county Circuit Court.

The court is used just two days per month, said Commissioner Will Tucker. The space is used by county health services and the Benton and Linn County Community Health Center the rest of the month in the county building located at 799 Long St.

If the court were to be closed, those services could set up rooms permanently in the court spaces, he said.

During court days, staff from the Lebanon Justice Court travel to Sweet Home to handle cases, requiring the county to pay for travel expenses, Tucker said, and the presiding judge is recommending shutting down the Sweet Home court.

“It’s a matter of economics,” Tucker said.

Justice of the Peace Jad Lemhouse is “aging out” at 75 years old, said Commissioner John Lindsey.

The Oregon Constitution requires judges to retire at age 75.

Lemhouse has served as justice of the peace and municipal court judge around Linn County for decades. That included a term as Municipal Court judge in Sweet Home and he is the Justice of the Peace for Lebanon and Sweet Home.

In a letter to the Board of Commissioners, Lemhouse outlined the minimal activity at the Sweet Home Justice Court.

In the first seven months of 2018, the court handled 23 misdemeanor charges, 61 traffic violations, 11 other violations and one civil action, a total of 96 filings or about 14 per month.

In 2016, the court handled 21 misdemeanors, 84 traffic violations, 60 other violations and four civil actions, a total of 169 filings or about 14 per month.

Lemhouse said exact data was not available for 2017, but the numbers would be similar, about 14 filings per month.

“Filings are only part of the story,” Lemhouse said. “It is fairly common for one person to have multiple charges arising, two or three from a single stop. So those 14 filings probably involved only eight people. Of those eight people, five or six might actually appear.

“Holding court in Sweet Home is not cost effective with these numbers. The filing numbers, particularly the civil filings (small claims) do not indicate a real public need for a justice court presence in Sweet Home.”

“There’s going to have to be an appointment,” Lindsey said. “Jad has been a very effective manager. He’s actually a very good administrator.”

If the commissioners were to appoint a new justice of the peace, they would look for one of Lemhouse’s pro tem judges who are familiar with Linn County, Lindsey said. But the governor appoints the position, and someone new will have to learn from scratch.

Closing the court would help with that kind of transition, Lindsey said. If the commissioners closed the court, justice court functions would be handled at the Lebanon Justice Court, 40 N. 2nd St.

Those receiving traffic citations in Holley, for example, go to court at the Sweet Home Justice Court right now, Lindsey said. If closed, they would need to travel to Lebanon.

“We wouldn’t want to close it down if it’s going to cause problems in Sweet Home,” Lindsey said, but even if the commissioners do close it, they can always open it up again if needed.

“I’d like to hear from the community,” Tucker said. “I’m not sure, with a strong municipal court system, if Sweet Home even needs a justice court.”