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The incremental budget increases that many state courts received this year still leave them with less money, less personnel, larger caseloads and more backlog than they had four years ago. In many states, such as Oregon and South Carolina, budget cuts have led to cuts in personnel, wage freezes and court closings. Most court systems have increased court costs and added new surcharges to make up for some of their lost funding, which may be obstacles to public access to some courts, according to several state court administrators. One state, Minnesota, attempted to raise money through indigent criminal defendants. And legislative mandates that require courts to raise more revenue have sometimes skewed the kind of cases that get priority, some court administrators say. But not all the news this year was doom and gloom. Facing calamitous budget cuts, California ended up with a fairly substantial increase. Perhaps the state’s chief justice, Ronald M. George, provides an archetype for the kind of political skills-and just plain chutzpah-that it takes to pull off such a budget feat. “We are not the Board of Cosmetology or the Department of Fish and Game-we are a co-equal branch of government,” George said. But most courts did not fare as well. “There’s a limit to how much [in cuts] courts can absorb before it affects their ability to deliver the services that they are obligated to provide,” said Kenneth Pankey, a senior information analyst for the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts (NCSC). “Seventy to 90% of state court budgets are for personnel.” Daniel Hall, vice president of NCSC’s Courts Consulting Services Division in Denver, sees some hope in newly obtained statistics, which may mean that the worst is over-for now-for the vast majority of state courts that saw their budgets cut for several consecutive years. In a still-unpublished survey, 80% of the 36 state courts that responded reported either no further budget cuts or increases for fiscal year 2005. These past few years have seen “the deepest and longest hits the courts have taken,” Hall said. In many states it has resulted in “inadequate services to pro se litigants and other pockets of court users,” he said. Problem-solving courts such as drug and mental health courts were hit with budget cuts in Arizona, Louisiana and Colorado. At least one court system, Montana’s, isn’t able to determine readily how well its courts are performing. “District courts have an outdated case management system,” said State Court Administrator James Oppedahl. Montana’s 56 counties have “old DOS-based databases that are not linked to a central repository. If you can’t measure what you’re doing, you can’t manage it, and it makes it very difficult to improve it.” And requiring courts to raise more revenue through fees poses new threats to the justice system, administrators say. “As a general principle, when states attempt to balance their budgets in terms of court costs, you end up with people like traffic offenders paying a disproportionate amount,” said Daniel Becker, Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) president and Utah state court administrator. He added that “[w]hen states increase fees for domestic filings and small claims actions, some people are not able to bear those fees,” and have to turn away from the courts. While Utah did increase its fine schedule and its fees for general civil filings for cases in which more than $5,000 in damages is claimed, it exempted small claims and domestic matters. COSCA asserts that courts should be funded with appropriated dollars regardless of how much money is brought in by fines, fees or costs, Becker said. “There should not be a direct relationship about how well we’re funded and how much money we bring in . . . .It’s a trend that many find troubling.” The shift away from stable sources of funding sometimes skews the kinds of cases that get heard. “Kind of what happens is that if we’re going to make up the shortfall by enhancing our revenue . . . those cases get heard without delay-whether they were really the priority kinds of cases is another question,” said Hall. He gave as an example an emphasis on traffic dockets and increased staff time allocated to the the collection of fines. One state, Minnesota, made an end run around a bedrock constitutional principle to make ends meet. In 2003, the state Legislature, which had cut the Minnesota court budget in successive years, instituted mandatory unwaivable fees for anyone requiring a public defender. To obtain appointed counsel, indigents had to pay $50 for a misdemeanor, $100 for a gross misdemeanor and $200 for felonies-that is, until the Minnesota Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional. Minnesota v. Tennin, 674 N.W.2d 403 (2004). Minnesota did not see an increase in the latest fiscal cycle that runs through 2005, said state court spokeswoman Wendy Burt. During 2002, Oregon courts got hit with a succession of five budget cuts that resulted in an overall 27% cut from the previous year, which caused a 30% staff reduction, said Gail Bouldrey, budget officer for the Oregon Judicial Department. Cases are prioritized on 16 levels in Oregon, from “small claims to aggravated murder,” Bouldrey noted. Public safety, child protection and domestic relations are the highest priorities, and cases such as small claims and some aspects of post-conviction relief got short shrift. The remaining staff, with the exception of judges, took a 10% cut in salary and all courts were closed on Fridays for four months in 2003, delaying arraignments and other matters. During that period, public defenders, who were then a part of the courts’ general budget, did not have enough money to appoint lawyers for nonviolent misdemeanors. “It was such a strange time for all of us,” Bouldrey recalled. Most cuts were restored in the biannual 2003-2005 budget, but then came an immediate 5% budget cut. The Legislature also instituted a 30% surcharge on all civil filing fees. Court administrators express a belief that the more transparent they make their decision-making processes, the better they can educate the legislative and executive branches about their needs. In doing so, they hope they can exchange that openness for adequate funding and less micromanagement of court administration. “It’s a challenge,” said Oppedahl, “We’re at a watershed, but when we have clearly articulated our needs to the Legislature, they have been very responsive. I’m sure we’ll move forward. I’m hopeful.” Thomas Timberlake, South Carolina’s director of finance for court administration, echoed Oppedahl. But he added that “the courts have suffered mightily.” South Carolina courts were hit with budget cuts of 8.5% in 2001-02, 10.5% in 2002-03 and 9.5% in 2003-04. Despite those cuts, its budget is roughly back to where it was in 2002, with two-thirds of the budget coming from general appropriations and the balance from user fees, Timberlake said. But user fees “are not as predictable and not a permanent source of funding . . . .Any one of the pots of money could dry up for economic or political reasons,” he said. Court consolidations In the meantime, South Carolina courts have maintained high vacancy rates, instituted employee furloughs, cut back supplies and stopped heating their buildings on weekends. “One of the worst areas is we have cut back dramatically in traveling expenses,” Timberlake said. South Carolina trial court judges are statewide judges, paid by the state as opposed to counties. They are elected by the Legislature. The state prides itself in rotating them so that “they don’t get too comfortable in their home counties,” said Timberlake. Now “they spend more time in their home county than we would like.” Some courts have found opportunities to affect structural changes-such as court consolidation-that would be institutionally difficult to make in better times given a generally turf-protective court culture. In 1997, for the first time, California’s Judicial Council had to go to the governor for emergency funding for the trial courts. The following year, California voters passed a constitutional amendment that allowed counties to consolidate their municipal and superior courts. It was the end of a long process that began when the state was in a deep state recession in 1991 and looking for economies. It culminated in the state taking over county funding of the courts. “Efficiencies could be achieved,” said Chief Justice George. Fifty of the 58 counties almost immediately made the cost-saving move to consolidate. But it wasn’t until February 2001 that everyone came aboard. “It took some carrots and sticks,” George said. “Some judges felt that if there were no municipal court judges, whom would they be superior to? Instead of 220 separate fiefdoms, we’ve reduced the number of trial courts to 58. We also got the benefit of offering a lot more access to our courts by [such things as] as expanding [superior court] family law services to what had once been municipal court locations.” Still, California courts faced enormous budget cuts this past year when the state’s governor was recalled and replaced by a fiscally conservative Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget would have resulted in severe reductions in court operations, said George, immediate past president of the Conference of Chief Justices. Despite that, he didn’t feel it was “any way to run a judiciary for a chief justice to go hat in hand to get funding to run the courts.” George hosted the midyear meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices in San Francisco and invited Schwarzenegger to give the keynote address. The Austrian-born former bodybuilder, actor and businessman spoke of the many times he had availed himself of the court system. “He had a sincere appreciation of the role of the judiciary and its status as a co-equal branch,” George said. George had several one-on-one meetings with the governor, his finance staff and key legislators. “I consider it a major part of my job to have dozens of one-on-one meetings,” he said. “This is not about judges and courts but people getting fair access to justice,” he told them. At the end of negotiations, he walked away with $100 million more, a 4.4% increase in funding over the prior year, which still did not meet all the courts’ needs. In addition, the final bill mandated an automatic yearly adjustment to trial-court funding.

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