The Carter County Courthouse has been an Ardmore landmark since it was built in 1910. Throughout the decades much of the county’s business has been conducted on the first floor of the historic building. The second and third floors have been reserved for the business of the district court — criminal and civil.
County offices have grown and expanded, some beyond the walls of the courthouse. But not the court. For the past 40 years, three judges — a district judge, associate district judge and a special district judge — have tended to the court’s business. The status quo has remained intact for those four decades. But not for long.
District Judge Dennis Morris says the growing number of cases before the court threatens to clog the system. The problem is magnified with yearly budget cuts.
“Every moment of every day I’m in court,” Morris said, adding that the same is true for Associate District Judge Thomas Baldwin and Special District Judge Carson Brooks. “We have one of the highest caseloads in the state. We’re on the same level as Cleveland, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. Our criminal and deprived children caseloads mirror much larger counties, yet we have the same number of judges we had 40 years ago.”
Limiting the present discussion to the criminal side of the court’s load, Morris said while the county’s population has expanded an estimated 25 percent to 30 percent in 40 years, criminal cases are increasing at a greater rate.
“In 2010 we had 657 felony cases. In 2015 we had 812,” Morris said.
The question is ‘why?’ Morris has a one-word answer: “methamphetamine.”  He describes the drug as “evil and violent.”
Morris isn’t alone in his assessment of the problem. District Attorney Craig Ladd and longtime Ardmore attorney Charles Milor agree.
“Methamphetamine is less forgiving and more addicting,” Milor says. “Twenty-five years, ago the drug problem was different. Methamphetamine is entirely different. It’s much more serious.”
Ladd agrees, but adds another element to the mix: “We have seen an increase in felony cases filed in the past couple of years. This increase is partially related to drugs, in particular offenses that stem from methamphetamine use and prescription pill abuse. Fortunately, our local narcotics officers take a very proactive approach to our drug problem, which results in more arrests being made and felony cases filed.
“In addition, I have seen a significant increase in embezzlement cases, which is often related to gambling and other times simply greed.”
Morris says the destruction methamphetamine leaves in its wake isn’t limited to Carter County.
“It’s everywhere. We are no different than any other community in any part of the country,” he said. “The Mexican cartel has made methamphetamine an industry and the amount being produced means the price is going down. It’s a problem we have to deal with.”
Now, Morris is looking for ways to ease the congestion in the system. One way already in use is preliminary conferences. Following a defendant’s initial arraignment, the conference is conducted between the prosecution and the defense and is meant to move cases that can be resolved without burdening the court.  
“Although our filings have increased, the number of prosecutors and judges we have to handle the cases has remained the same,” Ladd said. “The utilization of preliminary hearing conferences to provide an opportunity to defense attorneys and prosecutors to resolve cases without the necessity for contested hearings certainly helps to alleviate the strain caused by the increased number of felony cases filed.”
Milor agrees the conferences provide some defendants a quicker way to resolve their cases.
However, Morris is looking to the near future when the majority of county offices will move to the Noble building as the biggest answer to the problem. That move will allow for expansion of the court and the court’s office. It also will allow for an additional courtroom, which can be manned when needed by one or more of the five judges who serve the remainder judicial district (Johnston, Love, Marshall and Murray counties).
“The faster we can move cases, the more we can do to make sure we don’t waste jurors’ time,” Morris says. “The objective of the jury term schedule is to make sure we are not inconveniencing potential jurors.”
Currently Morris sets jury dockets in Carter County four times per year, in February, May, August and November. Prior to each docket, the court clerk’s office sends out an estimated 280 jury duty notices, which, on average, result in about 110 qualified jurors.
Although concerned about a problem that could overload the system, Morris said of himself, Baldwin and Brooks, “we work hard, but we are very fortunate to have the public’s confidence and we’re privileged to be able to serve.”