Judge Arner Looks Back: Sees Increase in Number of People Choosing to Be Their Own Lawyer
“There is a lot of responsibility with the administration because we have to put together the budget proposals, follow the budgets, and make lots of decisions, Judge Arner told exploreClarion.com.
“The President Judge is in charge of the adult and juvenile probation offices and the Domestic Relations Office, Magisterial District Judges and their staffs. There are frequently issues that come up concerning the operation of those offices and personnel matters that the judge has to deal with.”
Arner explained that the other concern that he has had from the beginning is getting through the cases quickly enough and not letting them drag out or not allowing a backlog to build up.
“That’s one of the things I think we’ve done well with everybody’s help to manage these cases in a timely manner and not allow a backlog of cases,” Arner added.
Since there is a transition in the DA Office and Public Defender, the judge has to get involved as needed for some of those kinds of issues — those that affect the operation of the court and judge gets involved in administrative issues.
Security is another area in which the court has seen big changes.
“We’ve seen some big changes in the need for security to protect people who are participating in court cases.
“Security is also needed for some of the judicial things like domestic relations because those are some of the most volatile types of cases custody and support cases are very emotionally-charged types of cases where people can get belligerent and violent.”
Security Issues and Concerns
Very different changes have come because of technology. The court system is dealing more with video conferencing for hearings for people who are incarcerated.
Arner explained, “For example, that’s just what I was doing before this interview with a video conference from the Clarion County Jail on a bench warrant. We have quite a few of those video hearings and save transportation expenses. We have to have the right technology to move ahead.”
In a different area with technology, the legal research that the court does is all computer-based, and before that it was books.
Although the court has a law library, it’s downsized a lot, according to Arner.
“We redid that part of the building and put it in a small office space because most of it’s available on the computer now. Lawyers log into a law library and members of the public who want to do research can come here, and we’ll hook them up. It’s part of our Law Library budget through the county. Some law books are also available at the Clarion County Jail and they are also entitled to access.”
Arner voiced his concern about an increase in the lack of respect for authority and the court and attempts to limit the authority of the judges to make decisions.
“People in other areas of authority are telling the court how they need to do their business and make decisions.
“So, I think that’s a concern of mine that that potentially affects the independence of the judiciary. I’m not saying that that has resulted in any significant changes at this point, but there’s that constant pressure and it sometimes comes from the legislature.”
Areas of Increasing Crime
Arner pointed out that drug and alcohol-related offenses and sexual assaults are on the increase in the county.
“Obviously, addictive drugs are the big one and alcohol abuse continues to be a major source of criminal cases in our county. Driving under the influence and drug and alcohol-related offenses are increasing. We’ve also seen an increase in sexual assaults and particularly on children, at least in the prosecution of those types of crimes.
“Those are very difficult cases for everybody and I’ve seen an increase in the volume of those types of cases, unfortunately.
Specialty Courts Started About 15 Years Ago.
- Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court
Arner discussed mandatory treatment and intensive probation supervision and even with electronic monitoring house arrest for offenders.
“We’ve had a good deal of success with that in terms of helping people deal with their addictions, and I believe it’s around 50 percent of the people. There are people who even go through the program and then afterward relapse, you know, and but I think we’re in line with what the success rate is in other counties. This is not only in Clarion County, and there are many treatment courts throughout the state.
This is a program that has been well-accepted, and the legislature funds it to try to help people and also reduce the jail populations sometimes.
“We keep their feet to the fire with the idea that if they don’t meet the requirements of the program, it can be revoked and they would be incarcerated at that point. We even have drug and alcohol programs in the jail now.”
- Bail Supervision Program
Early in the case, a defendant who is dealing with drug and alcohol issues can apply and the team, including the district attorney and probation and others, decide if a person is appropriate for the bail supervision.
“They don’t stay in jail while their cases are pending, and we let them out on bail under strict supervision with probation.”
“That has helped also with our jail population and also getting people into treatment sooner than later having to wait a year or so for their case to be resolved before they start their treatment.
- Family Court
Those are really difficult cases that take up quite a bit of time, according to Arner.
“We have lots of contentious custody cases, and it’s discouraging to see the lack of commitment to a family, a lack of commitment to a relationship and children. We see so many young people who don’t have really a committed relationship having kids and then coming into court to fight about it.”
“One change I see in Family Court is there are more self-represented people, more people who are wanting to do it try to come into court and take care of it themselves as opposed to having an attorney. I think part of that is probably due to the cut back in the funding for legal services. They used to help people who couldn’t afford an attorney with the legal services, but they don’t do that anymore.”
The court system has made available instructions and forms on how individuals can go about filing papers and representing themselves.
“I think people have gotten the idea that they can come in and represent themselves, and once they get here, it’s a different story.
“Theoretically, they’re supposed to follow the rules and know what the Rules of Evidence are and Improper Procedures, and they just really don’t know that that puts judges in a bind in the sense of explaining to them the process and what they need to do without crossing the line and getting to be advocates for them.”
Family or civil court cases are not entitled to a free attorney except for the children in abuse cases.
“There are more people representing themselves in custody disputes, and it’s not just the full-blown custody trials. There are all kinds of claims of emergencies and special relief that so-and-so won’t let me see the child or so and so’s living with a drug addict or Megan’s Law offender or is abusing alcohol. I mean these kind of allegations that are made by people in their handwritten filings.”
“We have to sort through and decide what is an emergency and what’s not, but that puts pressure on the courts for scheduling — when it does appear that there’s a real urgent matter involving kids. We have to get those scheduled quickly.
“There some been a real directive from the State Supreme Court to keep kids with their families if it all possible, even if it’s not a blood relative of somebody so-called Ken that would be a friend or even a teacher or coach or somebody who connected with the child as opposed to putting them in an unfamiliar foster home or a Residential Treatment Facility.
“These are tough cases to deal with a good part of the percentage of the work we do is involving custody and family law.
“We’ve seen an increase over the last year. It’s almost exploded with the number of Children and Youth cases were having and I don’t know why exactly — if it’s the drug problem or poverty.”
- Criminal Court
According to Arner, the court is seeing the self-represented people in the criminal area when they are charged with crimes.
Arner believes some of those individuals apply for the public defender and don’t qualify.
“Some say they don’t have enough money to hire their own attorney. So, they’re in here representing themselves, and it works out mostly. There are those who don’t want to take a plea deal and instead want to (go to) trial, and then it becomes really complicated when they have to pick a jury to have a jury trial when they have no notion of how that all works.”
That becomes a concern, and the courts have to deal with it, Arner explained.
“It’s not expensive unless we have to appoint an attorney to represent them and sometimes we do that. We’ve had a couple of trials where the defendant has said I don’t want the public defender. I want to represent myself, but they have no notion of what to do.
“So, the law allows for the appointment of what’s called standby counsel. We can appoint an attorney to basically be present and answer questions and not really represent them as such but help them along the way. We’ve done that, and there is some expense to the county with that but doesn’t happen all that often.”
The children are entitled to an attorney and the guardian and the parents in the CYS cases get a free attorney if they’re eligible, but those individual need to follow the correct procedures, according to Arner.
In addition to new assignments as a senior judge, Arner and wife Deb plan to see their sons and their wives and grandkids more often.
“I want to help out in the community where I can and try to stay more physically active. I would like to walk and ride my bike on the trail a little bit more.”
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