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With a number of states facing budget deficits due to a souring economy, court systems across the nation are battling severe cuts that could lead to layoffs of court personnel, reductions in service and delays in payment to court-appointed counsel. In a sign of the fiscal distress to come, Florida court officials may need to cut hundreds of positions and eliminate court-based mediation. In Missouri, only three of the nearly 50 state public defender’s offices are adhering to recommended caseload standards � and the situation is expected to worsen. Court systems in Kentucky and New Jersey are also facing substantial cuts. In Maine, a moratorium on some criminal and civil trials was briefly considered to help make up the current fiscal year’s $700,000 shortfall in the court system budget, but the proposal was recently rejected, said Ted Glessner, the state court administrator. Walter McKee, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said if the moratorium had gone into effect, his organization and the Maine Civil Liberties Union would have considered filing a lawsuit. “A complete moratorium on the criminal docket, we believe, would be an unconstitutional violation of the right to a speedy trial,” said McKee of Augusta, Maine’s Lipman, Katz & McKee. This year’s shortfall will still have to be dealt with in a variety of ways, including some delays in payments to court-appointed counsel, McKee said. The underfunding is the result of Maine’s budget shortfall as well as a growing caseload, with the superior court system seeing about 20% more cases than last year, Glessner said. Some of that 20% increase was due to growth in criminal cases, while some of it has to do with superior courts now having jurisdiction over some cases they did not oversee before, Glessner said. Digging into emergency funds In Florida’s state court system, a proposed cut of $42 million for next fiscal year could lead to a 30% reduction in the work force, or 727 positions, according to a presentation Florida Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis made to a state Senate committee last week. The proposed cuts would eliminate court-based mediation and lead to significant delays in court services, according to Lewis. The system’s current budget is $445 million, with a work force of 4,207. Rick Parker, president of the Florida Public Defender Association and the public defender for the state’s 8th Judicial Circuit, said his office had a 6.5% cut this year and faces more cuts next year, putting the system in the worst shape he has seen in his 35 years there. The current fiscal year’s statewide budget for public defenders was reduced by $12 million to about $187 million, Parker said. The state employs about 1,540 assistant public defenders and 1,500 support staff, he said. “It’s almost imaginable,” Parker said. “It’s going to mandate that we have fewer employees,” he said. In Missouri, the state public defender’s office has not received an increase in eight years, except for minor cost-of-living adjustments, said J. Marty Robinson, the state public defender. There is no proposal to increase the $32 million budget next year, which will further strain the system, he said. Already, only three of the nearly 50 state public defender’s offices are not exceeding recommended caseload standards, he said. The Missouri State Public Defender employs 558 people, Robinson said. Caseloads vary greatly from district to district, depending on factors such as whether a district is in a city or a rural area. But according to the office’s latest annual report in 2006, a typical trial division public defender opened 296 cases, which is above the national standard of 225 cases set by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards. “[W]hat’s happening is the quality of the service provided for people is eroding every day and it has for years,” Robinson said. “So I can’t tell you there is a point in time where [the system] will be broken, I’m telling you that it has been broken.” In Kentucky, the judicial branch has committed to cutting nearly $2 million from the fiscal 2008 budget, spokeswoman Leigh Anne Hiatt said in an e-mail. In New Jersey, the state judiciary system’s $600 million budget was facing a $27 million cut as of last week, the largest in recent years, spokeswoman Winnie Comfort said.

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