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Bar News - April 16, 2010

Judicial Branch Resisting Further Budget Cuts


A sign on the door at the Merrimack County Superior Court on April 2, notifies visitors of the Judicial Branch’s furlough dates.
Governor John Lynch’s request for the Judicial Branch to carve another $4 million in spending from its FY 2011 budget is being resisted by court leaders.

The governor last week released his long-awaited proposal to meet a widening state budget deficit. Lynch’s proposal, including $85 million in spending cuts, higher tobacco taxes and some additional layoffs, is under consideration by the finance committees of the NH House and Senate.

In a letter to Governor Lynch sent last week, Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr. responded to the governor’s request by detailing a series of measures that would illustrate what a $4 million cut "would look like" from a $76.3 million court system budget. Broderick complied with a detailed list of cuts, but, in the letter and in a Bar News interview, reiterated that the courts oppose any further cuts beyond the $3.1 million mandated reduction made last fall. That cut resulted in the 14 unpaid furlough days, among other measures, which began with the April 2 closure of all state courts.

NHBA President James J. Tenn, Jr. has convened a team of Bar leaders to help coordinate the response of the New Hampshire Bar Association to the financial challenges facing the justice system. (Check the e-bulletin and for more information.)

Tenn said the Bar Association is very concerned about these further cuts requested of the judicial branch. He said the members of the Bar are in a unique position to comment on the current, real-life difficulties that citizens using the justice system are already experiencing. "We are mobilizing our resources, and urging our members to testify personally to their legislators and the governor about the impacts they are seeing – and the exponentially more severe consequences of deeper cuts." Individual Bar members can convincingly and credibly convey the potential damage of further significant cuts to an essential branch of government.

Justice Broderick, meanwhile, plans to meet with newspaper editorial boards and other news media in the next few weeks, as well as speaking publicly and informally with legislators, detailing the extent of damage to society and to the court system he says such cuts would cause.

"While I understand the problems state government is confronting, I believe that the Judicial Branch has assisted in every way possible to contribute its fair share of finding solutions," Broderick wrote to Lynch. "I respectfully urge you and the Legislature not to further undercut our capacity to deliver justice. The courts are not just a good idea or a valued service, but are essential to one of the fundamental promises of our democracy – meaningful and timely access to justice."

Broderick’s letter spells out a series of measures that could be used to achieve $4 million in savings from the operating budget for the court system in FY 2011, which starts July 1, 2010.

In his letter, Broderick spelled out what a $4 million cut to judicial branch might include:

Cut: Leave vacant all judicial openings; eliminate all per-diem judge payments to part-time or senior judges. Savings: $1.48 million.

Result: 30 percent fewer trial court sessions as five full-time judgeships each in district and superior courts; one in probate court would remain unfilled.

Cut jury expenses by 50 percent. Savings: $400,000.

Result: With felony trials as the priority, there would be no time for civil jury trials. Non-felony trials, including serious misdemeanors, would have difficulty being scheduled and some charges would likely be dismissed for failure to meet speedy trial requirements.

Cut security expenses by 20 percent. Savings: $600,000.

Result: Courthouses would be closed to the public on additional days, or clerk’s offices open without court sessions if security not available. No contested hearings or trials will be held without security officers present.

Transfer $1.5 million from dedicated IT fund.

Broderick proposed that the money for continued implementation of the Odyssey case-management system be replenished by a transfer from the capital fund, using the projected cost savings of almost $2 million due to lower-than-expected construction bids for the Hillsborough North construction project. Legislative action would be required to make this transfer. (This proposal would not affect the pace of progress on the Hillsborough North courthouse project, already underway.)

Broderick’s letter also explains the difficulty of trying to achieve the $4 million in cuts through layoffs. Currently, almost 11 percent of the authorized non-judicial staff positions are vacant. To achieve the savings through layoffs, Broderick said 71 additional vacancies would have to be created through layoffs, resulting in depletion of the workforce by almost 22 percent. The reduction in staff would compound itself as the impact of the earlier $3.1 million reduction being met chiefly through unpaid furloughs would fall on an even smaller group of employees, requiring even more furloughs.

In a Bar News interview, Broderick said that the judicial branch has already incurred more than its fair share of cuts, which are not being distributed broadly enough among state government agencies. Some, including the departments of Fish & Game, Safety and Transportation, which receive much of their funding through dedicated sources, are emerging relatively unscathed in the budget process, he said.

He criticized the budget-reduction process, saying that it is not taking into account the relative necessity of government services. "In the race to cut spending, we are losing sight of the value of the money being cut – what are government’s obligations? Instead, it’s all about the math – it’s not about the impact of the cuts; it’s not about the values."

He acknowledged that the financial plight of the state is serious. "But, while we may be in bad circumstances, that does not mean we can justify bad decisions."

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