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Congress has nearly decimated an independent agency it created 20 years ago to foster innovations in judicial administration, said its new executive director. And now that agency-the State Justice Institute (SJI)-has come under fire from several state chief justices for its failure to make its case for adequate funding before Congress. Since 1986, state courts have relied on SJI for grants to subsidize research, pilot projects and judicial education. SJI, for example, played a key role in the development of family violence courts and drug courts. In its first decade, it gave out and monitored more than $100 million in grants, much of it matched by the states. Now its budget is less than 20% of what it was in its heyday. Its staff has been cut by two-thirds, and every member’s term on its board of directors has long expired, said Kevin Linskey, SJI’s new executive director. Several chief justices at a recent gathering of the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) in New York-which was before Linskey took office-expressed serious concern about the viability of an organization whose budget has fallen to $2.6 million from a high of $13.55 million. Some chief justices wanted the committee to consider creating an alternative entity for obtaining federal dollars for state courts. A CCJ official requested that specific comments in the justices’ freewheeling discussion not be attributed. Not optimistic SJI’s new director is not optimistic that he’ll be able to turn things around in the near term. “The president has just submitted the most draconian domestic budget in a generation,” said Linskey, whose tenure began on Feb. 22, after leaving a legislative affairs position at the U.S. Department of Defense. “When the federal government is bankrupt, a lot of stuff goes by the boards . . . .Very few new [SJI] initiatives have been funded.” SJI’s mission, as set out by Congress, is to “assure each person access to a fair and effective system of justice.” The success of projects is measured, in part, by whether the programs continue after SJI funding ends, and whether the programs are adopted in other jurisdictions, Linskey said. Among its other accomplishments, SJI helped to: Integrate courtrooms with computer technology. Establish the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) Technology Information Service, and fund 215 other NCSC projects or programs. Pilot aspects of New York City’s Midtown Community Court, the prototype of courts dedicated to adjudicating “quality of life” crimes. Spawn touch-screen computer kiosks that, among other things, allow the public to pay fines and file child support and uncontested divorce petitions. Because SJI’s budget requests are included in the appropriations bill for the U.S. departments of Commerce, Justice and State, it competes head-to-head for funds with, among other entities, the federal judiciary, the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI. Chief justices at the recent conference also expressed frustration with failures to get two presidential administrations to appoint slates of SJI board members that they submitted in 1998, 2001 and 2002. All 11 board members’ three-year terms had expired by 1998, and the chief justices now on the board have retired from their courts. CCJ nominates six judicial candidates and one court administrator, while the president nominates four public members. CCJ President Shirley S. Abrahamson, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin and chairwoman of NCSC, urged that the chief justices initiate efforts to reinvigorate SJI and get a new board appointed. Abrahamson was on the 2001 and 2002 SJI board slates. The FBI began background checks, said Abrahamson, but the president did not forward any names to the Senate for confirmation. An FBI spokesman said the bureau never comments on background checks. A White House spokeswoman pointed to a fiscal year 2002 House/Senate conference report, which slashed by more than half-to $3 million-the amount each body had originally appropriated. The conference did “not recommend continued Federal support for the Institute beyond . . . 2002,” said the report. “[Although that did] not necessarily mean the dissolution of the Institute,” it added.

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