Bar News - February 19, 2010
Furloughs Scheduled; Court Budget Tightens
By: Dan Wise
All state courts will be closed to the public on April 2, April 30 and May 28 as unpaid furlough days begin for court employees, according to a Feb. 5 judicial branch memo. At the same time, legislators appear to favor a bill that would preserve district courts in Claremont, Colebrook, Keene and Milford.
The system-wide Friday closures and related furloughs are part of a budget-cutting plan that aims to cut $3.1 million from an already-reduced budget through the end of June 2011. The furloughs will apply to employees not in collective bargaining units; 300 employees who recently unionized as part of the State Employees Association will vote on whether to go along with the furlough plan starting in March following an agreement between union leaders and the Court. Before negotiations began in November, unionized court employees were surveyed and it showed overwhelming support for furloughs over layoffs, according to a union spokesman. If the union membership does not vote for furloughs, layoffs throughout the system will be required and the courts will still close to the public on the scheduled furlough days, with unionized employees reporting to work on administrative matters.
Meanwhile, “very close to 100 percent” of the judges and marital masters, whose salaries cannot be cut, have voluntarily agreed to participate in the unpaid furlough plan, said Howard Zibel, general counsel to the NH Supreme Court, in a letter to legislators.
Dates for furloughs in the second year of the biennium will be determined later, based on the outcome of the legislative session and budget work, Broderick said in the Feb. 5 memo.
“It saddens us all to be planning furloughs that will close courts, diminish access to justice, and reduce compensation to those who work in the courts,” the Court’s memo said.
Over at the State House, legislators are heeding the pleas of police and local offi cials concerned with higher costs and inconveniences caused by closing down district courts in Claremont, Colebrook, Keene and Milford.
For cost-cutting reasons, the four courts – Claremont, Colebrook, Milford and Keene – were slated for closure in the last judicial branch budget, but were spared in the last session by legislation that call for more study of the moves.
HB 1516, approved by the House Finance Committee last month on a 23-1 vote, calls for those courts to remain open, amended to require the judicial branch to absorb those costs without added funding. (A vote on the bill may have taken place by the date of this issue of Bar News. Check www.nhbar.org.)
Rep. Peter Leishman (D-Milford), prime sponsor of HB 1516, said police and town offi cials’ testimony was per suasive. “Closing these courts would cause serious problems and signifi cantly increase costs for the towns and the citizens of those towns who would no longer have reasonable access to the state’s courts,” he said. He says chances are good that the bill will pass on the vote of the full House.
Offi cials in Colebrook and Claremont have promised to waive rent payments for the courts that are housed in their municipal buildings to help keep the courts open; Keene offi cials have also made similar comments, Leishman said. The Milford court is housed in commercial space and if the bill becomes law, the courts would have to pay annual lease costs of about $80,000 for Milford plus security costs at all four locations.
In a letter to House Finance Committee Chair Marjorie Smith, Zibel said the judicial branch is striving to meet the budget-cutting targets set by the legislature and cannot endure further cuts. “At some point, government must either fund or abandon that which it wants to do,” Zibel wrote. “This is such a point. Thus the judicial branch urges the Finance Committee to either fund the operation of these courts or close them. Asking the judicial branch to operate these courts without funding is just not a viable option at this time.”
Visit the Court Budget Update pages at nhbar.org for updated information, including the report of the legislative study committee that held hearings on the local court closures. Also, the “Why We Care” pages at nhbar.org provide resources and background on advocacy for adequate justice system resources.