Nebraska State of the Judiciary: “The courts are not just another agency line item in the state’s budget”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivered his State of the Judiciary Address to the unicameral Nebraska legislature on January 20. There was apparently no formal resolution, only a motion at the appointed time for a committee to escort the Chief Justice to the rostrum. (update: added link)

Highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

The Courts have a constitutional mandate to provide access to justice for all of Nebraska’s citizens. Of special concern are the needs of the elderly and the young who become wards of our county courts when they cannot protect themselves… We have a duty to those who need such protection to not let the very court processes designed to protect them become an opportunity for embezzlement or further abuse.

Children in the Courts

I spoke to you last year about one of these programs, the Nebraska Juvenile Service Delivery Project, which began as a pilot in Omaha in January 2009. The project is a collaborative effort with the Department of Health and Human Services and is designed to safely supervise court-adjudicated delinquent children in their homes rather than in in-patient treatment facilities.
The Court’s Office of Probation Administration is also focusing on truancy intervention programs in order to reduce the number of children entering the juvenile justice system due to habitual truancy.
We also continue to work to improve the court system with respect to abused and neglected children through partnerships with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education.

Technology Advances

In past years I have spoken to you about increasing the use of technology in the courts to improve productivity. I am pleased to report that our electronic payment system collected over $5 million in traffic fines in 2010, as well as over $2 million in other costs and fines. In addition, electronic filing is gaining momentum as lawyers become more acclimated to the use of technology. At this time over 50% of our new civil filings in county court systems statewide are made electronically.
In the past I have also spoken to you about the growing demand for interpreters in our courts and the consequential need for budget increases to compensate for those interpreter demands. Without going into detail, by using technology to provide long-distance interpreter services, where appropriate our courts have limited the need for ever-larger budget increases for interpreters.
Technological advances are also allowing us to improve access to the courts for those who may not be able to afford legal services.
We have also begun a cooperative effort with the Nebraska Library Commission. Our Administrative Office was asked to serve as a key project partner with the Library Commission in a multi-million dollar grant project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Long-Range Planning
I frequently tell people that technology is the future of the courts. That, however, is an oversimplification. Technology is the future of the courts, but it must be coupled with long-range planning in anticipation of the court system’s future need for resources.

The Court’s Budget
Having updated this body with respect to the Court’s use of technology to improve efficiency, as well as the Court’s use of long-range planning, I have reached an appropriate point in this presentation to discuss funding for the courts. The courts are not just another agency line item in the State’s budget. Our courts are a constitutional branch of government, co-equal with the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch.
Over 95% of the Court’s general fund budget is allocated for those employee expenses. Any cut in the Court’s budget, whether it is 10% or 5% or 1%, means operating with fewer employees.
No judges or court employees will receive a cost of living increase next year. We will continue to not fill or delay filling vacancies. Depending on the extent of cuts in our budget, furloughs are likely.

Issue 5:3 is out

Issue 5:3 (January 14) is here and features:

-Restrictions on court use of religious or international law introduced in Arizona and Texas

-Small Claims limit increases: proposed in three states, rejected in Wyoming

-Paying for Court Interpreters: Mississippi and Montana bills would make the state AOCs more involved

-Mississippi bill would criminalize a judge’s failure to give a “fair hearing”

-Bills would have state court administrators set medical malpractice caps (Oregon) and the maximum fines for misdemeanors (Virginia)

Colorado Chief Justice delivers State of the Judiciary: “I have not come here today to present budgetary needs.”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

With the adoption of HJR 1103 of 2011 the Colorado House and Senate met in Joint Session on January 14 to hear the State of the Judiciary Address from Chief Justice Michael L. Bender.

Highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

[John] Adams’ point rings true today — to have a government that secures liberty and freedom, all branches of the government must be obedient to the law. Our government is not founded upon the good wishes and desires of individuals because, as Adams noted, individuals cannot be counted on to “prefer the public good before their own.”

As Chief Justice, I stand before you as representative of the seven justices, as well as the judiciary as a whole. I was elected to serve as chief by my peers and began a little less than six weeks ago, so the job is a little new to me.

Although adequate resources for court and probation functions are critical, I have not come here today to present budgetary needs. Instead, I will share some accomplishments, describe meeting the challenges posed by a struggling economy, and explain my goals for strengthening the judiciary.

Our greatest strength is our people—judges, magistrates, administrators, probation officers and clerks.

I would be remiss in not emphasizing that the resources provided by the General Assembly over the years have fully supported our mission. No matter how capable our judges, they cannot be effective unless adequate resources are provided. But there is no question that the economic downturn of the last few years has impacted all branches of government. Despite diminished resources and increasing demands, we have strengthened the operation of the courts by increasing efficiency.

As you know, we are in the process of building a statewide e-filing system for all cases, which will increase our efficiency and yield additional revenue. With your support, Colorado continues to lead the nation in court technology applications, as evidenced by the development and implementation of our public access system last year.

We continue to ensure quality and integrity within our court system. For example, we have been pioneers in the establishment of jury reform and the establishment of over 60 community problem solving courts across the state—these include veterans trauma, adult and juvenile drug, family dependence and neglect, DUI, adult and juvenile mental health, and truancy courts.

Access to the courts is also affected by the rapidly rising numbers of parties in marital dissolutions who cannot afford legal representation. These unrepresented parties, especially those with children, need legal advice and counseling.

Employee morale is critical. I don’t need to tell you how devastating job cuts and hiring freezes can be. The cuts we’ve made branch wide have fostered feelings that the work done in the local courts is not fully appreciated.

We, as judges, need to expand our efforts to educate the public about what we do and what the rule of law means to the Judiciary. The educational outreach program “Our Courts,” initiated by Court of Appeals Judge Russell Carparelli and Federal District Court Judge Marcia Krieger and supported by the Colorado Bar association and the Colorado Judicial Institute, needs our full support.

Before I close I want to talk a little about our new building. Thank you again General Assembly for your bipartisan support in championing this project. The Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which is being built without any general fund impact, will be finished in the spring of 2013. This center will house our appellate courts, the State Court Administrator’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office and other state legally related entities.

MO judges may get salary boost after all

Missouri’s compensation system for most elected officials is fairly straightforward: the Missouri Citizens’ Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials makes a recommendation which goes into effect unless overridden by two-thirds of the legislature by a set date. In 2009 it was in fact overridden (HCR 5) and things looked less than promising when the Senate Rules committee appeared last week to reject the increases in light of the economy. However, in a twist, the Senate Rules committee on a 4-3 vote rejected advancing a resolution of disapproval (SCR 3). Moreover, the Commission’s policy to set state judicial salaries as a fixed percentage of federal salaries appears to have gained legislative support.

However, according to the Associated Press, money for the raises would have to be included in the state budget. The leader of the state Senate’s Republican majority says he hopes lawmakers won’t fund them.

Plan to shrink Montana Supreme Court: designed to force the court into tort reform and out of redistricting lawsuits?

The effort to shrink the Montana Supreme Court from 7 members to 5, first discussed here, was heard in the Montana House Judiciary Committee today (audio and video here).

According to a fiscal note prepared on HB 245 the reduction would mean “a caseload increase of approximately 40% per justice. The time to disposition of Supreme Court cases would increase dramatically and cases may not be resolved timely.”

The author of HB 245, Rep. Derek Skees, told the House Judiciary Committee his intent in introducing the bill was to shrink government and save money. As for the caseload increase, Skees implied that while other Montana residents were having to do “more with less”, the Supreme Court had not and that the justices could “easily” handle the workload and achieve the guarantee of “speedy justice” in the state constitution. Skees also made clear his desire to obtain tort reform through the reduction of the size of the Supreme Court.

All of us want tort reform, well maybe not all of us.  I surely want it and a lot of folks I talk to want it. So how do we get tort reform? I would suggest that if we took the Supreme Court from 7 down to 5, they have a higher workload, guess who becomes our ally in tort reform? The Supreme Court.

Skees concluded his testimony with his desire to reduce the entire Supreme Court’s budget by 40%.

Rick Breckenridge of the Lake County Republican Party spoke in favor of the bill, noting to Republican members of the committee that:

We have redistricting and we need a tightened down Supreme Court in order to achieve that. So take control of the reins of the Supreme Court, show them who is in charge, and remember that with redistricting, how we (Republicans) have been treated by the Supreme Court in the past.

Opponents included the State Bar President Joe Sullivan who noted the massive slowdown that would result in the adjudication of both civil and criminal cases and impacting the economy. The State Bar opposes the bill “because it denies the citizens of Montana timely and swift access to their justice system.” Additionally, the chief prosecutor in the state Attorney-General’s office spoke out against the bill noting that, with lack of an intermediate appellate court, Montana’s 7 member Supreme Court was helpful for speedy deliberation of cases.

The chair of the committee noted a former justice of the Supreme Court resigned due to the already crushing burden on the court’s workload.

No vote was taken on the bill.

Kentucky joins Maryland in considering an end to its Judges’ Retirement system

I noted earlier this month that Maryland is considering closing the door to any future entrants for its Judges’ Retirement System. Kentucky, which has been in session since January 4, has moved swiftly to do the same. SB 2 of 2011 closes the state’s Judicial Retirement Plan to new members effective July 1, 2012. The bill allows those in the Judicial Retirement Plan with less than 5 years of service to transfer their membership and account balance to the newly-created Public Employees Retirement System, a 401(k)-style retirement plan (as opposed to the current defined benefit system, h/t Courier-Journal). All future judges would have no choice put to join the new System. The bill went from introduced to committee approved in the first three days of session (January 4-7) and is currently on the Senate floor.