Readers may recall a post several weeks ago that looked at the possibility that Virginia would lose its Judicial Council. According to the Virginia Lawyer’s blog, the bill to do just that advanced out of subcommittee earlier this week and is now on its way to the full House Courts of Justice committee.
The budget crises in the United States are a, if not the, central focus for all state judiciaries in this legislative session. Over the years, there have been several suggested solutions to address the problem of how to fund the third branch. The Conference of Chief Justices, for example, passed a resolution in 1973, amid the mid-1970s recession, that “This conference supports the financing of [the courts] by an automatic constitutional appropriation of a percentage of the General Fund Budget of each state.” (73-A-2)
HB 737 creates a Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to be administered by the Supreme Court and into which would be placed an automatic, guaranteed 1 percent of the state’s General Revenue Fund. The bill also declares “the judicial branch of state government shall be held harmless in years of fiscal deficits in the state as a matter of public safety” and permits revenues in the Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to remain in the fund at the end of every fiscal year.
HB 737 requires passage of HB 735 “or similar legislation”. HB 735 requires a retroactive elimination of judicial immunity in a variety of specified contexts dealing with court proceedings. Additionally, it expands the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and requires JQC investigation panels include at least 5 “common citizen electors” as a staff committee, none of whom may be “officers of the court” and who must prepare a separate report on the investigation that is to be made publicly available. Both the state courts system in general, and the JQC in particular, would be subject to an immediate audit by the state’s Auditor General and the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability conduct full audit review of commission, a review to be repeated every two years.
Additionally, HB 735 requires the Supreme Court create a plan “promoting civics for residents of this state, together with education concerning the judicial branch in order to develop trust and confidence in the state’s judicial system.” It also creates unified family courts, teen courts, drug courts and mental health courts in each judicial circuit.
The Florida legislature is due to come into full session March 2.
For nearly a century, the states have debated whether and to what extent their state court systems should be unified. Even the word itself has been the subject of ontological discourse (“What does “unified” mean, anyway?) As the ongoing budget crises force courts to review the way in which they deliver their core services, unification (however defined) is once again being submitted as a possible solution.
HB 470 comes out of the recommendations of the state’s Commission on Judicial Operation which has said on its website that “Vermonters can no longer afford the inefficiencies of our outdated court system. ” The Commission itself was created at the request of the legislature to “reduce the judiciary’s budget and enhance the efficient and effective delivery of judicial services.”
The bill would consolidate judicial functions by eliminating the Probate, Family, and District Courts (click here for current court structure chart, courtesy of the NCSC Court Statistics Project) and “establish[ing] a unified court system under the administrative control of the Supreme Court.” This unified system would consist of the Supreme Court and Superior Court, the later to absorb the Probate, Family and District Courts. This new Superior Court would have four divisions: civil, criminal, family, and probate, which would have the same subject matter jurisdiction currently had by the current Superior, District, Family, and Probate courts. Additionally, the state’s probate and judicial districts would be redrawn with districts no longer drawn along county lines. Moreover, all judges of the new Superior Court would be required to be attorneys, a qualification currently not mandatory for Probate Court judges. Finally, the state’s “assistant judges” (non-attorneys who may serve as “side judges” on cases) would not longer be allowed any judicial, adjudicative functions.
It remains to be seen whether this legislation will advance, and if so how far, before the legislature adjourns sometime in late April.