Bar News - March 18, 2011
State Budget and Justice System: Layoffs Loom; Fewer Dollars, More Delays
By: Dan Wise
Seeking to limit the damage, Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis is warning the legislature that the governorís level-funded budget for the judicial branch will trigger layoffs in the court system, further impede citizensí access to justice, and slow the pace of progress on its plan to streamline court structure.
Chief Justice Dalianis meets with members of the House Finance Committee who warned that the state budget may be reduced below what the governor proposes.
At recent hearings before the House Finance Committee, judicial branch leaders made their case to shield the courts from further budget cutting. At the same time, the NH Judicial Council also discussed its budget recommendations, which include elimination of state funding for guardians ad litem and mediation costs for indigent families.
At a Feb. 24 hearing Finance Committee members warned judicial branch leaders that they believe the governorís spending figures are more likely to be cut than boosted. Next week, the House Finance Committee is to make its budgetary recommendations to the full House.
Dalianis told lawmakers that combined with the 89 existing vacancies, over 100 employees now on the job would have to be laid off to make up the $10.9 million gap between the spending required to keep current operations and meet obligations, and the amount appropriated. The combined vacancies and potential layoffs would reduce the Judicial Branch workforce by one-third.
(See our web page of links and updated information on the judicial budget process and the Innovation Commission report.)
District and Family Division Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly told lawmakers that in the district courts there is a backlog of 30-to 45 days, and 60 days on average for family division cases.
The judicial budget does not include continuation of unpaid furloughs that had been negotiated with unionized court workers and voluntarily agreed to by judges (whose salaries cannot be reduced by budgetary action.) and it includes salaries for nine unfilled judicial vacancies, since the court must be prepared to pay for any judges confirmed to the bench. However, Dalianis said that Gov. Lynch has indicated that he may hold off on judicial appointments to help save money. In addition to nine full-time judicial vacancies - five in the superior court, three in the district court, and one in probate court - there are vacancies for 3.5 marital master positions.
The budget gap could be narrowed by keeping district and family division scheduling at 80 percent, thus reducing per diem judge payments and other costs. There is legislation in the works to reduce health benefit and retirement plan costs throughout state government which would also help the courtsí bottom line.
During the Feb. 24 budget hearing, influential legislators tossed out several suggestions, including further reducing the number of months that jury sessions are held to only six months in every county.
At that meeting, and again during meetings this week, judicial branch leaders warned that a number of unavoidable "cost-drivers" would force their hand, including:
Also last week, Nina Gardner, the NH Judicial Councilís Executive Director, discussed the decision to cut funding for the state fund for GALs and mediation. The NH Judicial Council also is proposing to cut funding for attorney representation of parents, except in termination of parental rights cases, where the state is moving for termination of parental rights.
- Increases in judicial and other employee retirement plan contributions;
- The cost of filling current full-time judicial vacancies in the superior and district courts
- Raises in rates for court security officers and sheriffís deputies negotiated in 2010 and approved by the legislature.
- Due to a quirk in the calendar, there is a 27th pay period in the state payroll in the next fiscal year, generating a $1.8 million bulge in salary costs, which affects all state government budget areas.
- Step increases for clerical employees.
Gardner said these were difficult choices, and were made in the interest of preserving more crucial areas of funding, including funding of the constitutionally required criminal defense services for the indigent provided by the NH Public Defender, contract attorneys, and assigned counsel. The NH Judicial Council also recommends continued funding for CASA, which provides volunteer guardians ad litem in abuse and neglect cases, attorneys for children in abuse and neglect cases, and support for NH Legal Assistance.