In Detroit, 36th District Court reform a success story

The Detroit News

The 36th District Court in Detroit is officially back in the hands of local administrators. But Appellate Judge Michael Talbot, whose fiscal and administrative expertise rejuvenated the court, is not far away and will be keeping an eye on the operation until local judges prove they can sustain the reforms he put in place.

Talbot, who was appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court in May of 2013 as special judicial administrator, will receive quarterly reports on the budget and caseloads and provide guidance as needed.

“It should be understood that I’m a resource,” Talbot says. “If we see any red flags, we should talk. I’m a phone call away.”

The court was in shambles when Talbot was sent in by the state Supreme Court. A report issued by the National Center for State Courts summarized the disastrous condition of the court, which is one of the largest and busiest in the country. The center said it was suffering from, among other things, a bloated payroll and poor customer service, and was spending about $5 million more than its $31 million budget. It also had failed to collect more than $200 million in fines, including traffic and parking violations. In addition, the court had a backlog of about 500,000 cases a year.

Before Talbot, the leaders in the court had the very simplistic — and unrealistic — attitude that what would correct all of the problems was more money from the county.

Instead, Talbot, a state appellate judge, made some minimal staff cuts but reduced the cumbersome list of job classifications, allowing workers to perform broader duties — which Talbot says the employees appreciate.

The new culture of the court staff helped institute reforms to improve operations and cut expenses. The court is also now far more customer oriented.

“Employees who work at that court are proud to work there,” Talbot says. “They’re not embarrassed anymore and that means they’ll respond to the public better.”

Talbot sees the court as an example for the city of Detroit as it emerges from bankruptcy. Changing the culture of the organization is essential to putting in place reforms that will work.

The 36th District Court was a classic case of a department not needing more money but the proper handling of what was already allocated. Talbot showed that fiscal responsibility and the appropriate use of personnel can accomplish a great deal, particularly when more cash is not an option.