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Pot bust reduces judge's caseload

The recent drug arrest of a justice of the peace has county officials in a quandary over the future of the Gold Hill Justice Court.

Justice Robert Henry King faces a non-criminal charge of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court Thursday.

Narcotics officers under the command of Sheriff Mike Winters cited and released King on June 11 for allegedly buying one-eighth ounce of marijuana from a police informant. The informant had told investigators about previous sales to King and wore a recording device during the transaction, Winters said.

Although King remains on the county's payroll, his workload was drastically reduced after Winters decided to reroute his department's citations from the Gold Hill Justice Court to state Circuit Court in Medford. Winters gave no specific reason for taking his non-criminal cases out of King's court, saying he felt it was an integrity issue.

Calls to King's Gold Hill home were not answered Friday. A voice recording on his answering machine said King is on vacation, according to Dave Kanner, deputy county administrator.

— Even if the court has virtually no caseload, the county still has to pay King, Kanner confirmed. The 59-year-old justice works part-time and is paid about &

36;36,000 a year. His salary is fixed for the next year, Kanner said, adding that he believes the only way King could be taken off the job is by a vote, which won't be held for the justice of the peace position until 2008.

It's one of those situations that no one's really sure about because no one's ever encountered it before, Kanner said.

According to Chapter 249 of the Oregon Revised Statutes, state law would allow voters to force King to a recall election. Petitioners would have to collect signatures from registered voters in King's Justice Court district representing at least 15 percent of the votes cast in that district for governor in 2002.

A backlog of cases likely will keep Justice Court's two clerks busy for the next month, Kanner said. The vast majority of cases consist of tickets that defendants simply pay without ever seeing a judge, Kanner said.

The county likely has no legal authority to close Justice Court but is considering reassigning King's staff to a new court scheduled to open in Central Point next month, Kanner said. The county's Southern Justice Court was created in March to handle citations written by a group of sheriff's deputies specifically tasked with traffic enforcement. Winters formed the new traffic group after hearing that the county had a high rate of death and injury caused by auto crashes.

King's court could not have handled the projected number of new citations generated by the sheriff's traffic team, said County Administrator Sue Slack. Justice Court still was included in the upcoming year's budget, but is supported entirely by fines, Kanner said. Fines also will support the new justice court, officials said.

Winters said he will funnel all of his department's non-criminal cases into Central Point's Justice Court once it opens. Until that time, fines from the sheriff's citations fund the state, not the county, since they are now in a state court, Kanner said.

The governor's office is in the process of appointing a judge for the new Southern Oregon Justice Court and likely will announce the position in two to three weeks, said spokeswoman Lorna Hobbs. The new court is ready to open when the appointment is made, Kanner said.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail