No Funds. . . No Courts
by Liz Starrs
By now, most attorneys know that our judicial system is having a hard time financially. Everyone in state agencies is feeling the budget crunch, and the judicial department recognizes the need for everyone to contribute to this year’s budget reduction plan—but cuts in the judicial department could endanger public safety and will certainly stop people from getting their cases heard.
You may or may not know that the Judicial Branch is composed of four agencies: the Judicial Department (courts and probation, which makes up 2.9 percent of the total state General Fund Budget); Public Defender; Alternative Defense Counsel; and the Office of the Child’s Representative. All together, the four agencies make up 3.8 percent of the state General Fund Budget.
What’s crucial to understand is that 25 percent of the judicial budget is allocated for non-discretionary, mandatory expenses and the remaining 75 percent goes toward personnel. Any cuts will have a disproportionate impact on non-judicial staff and the probation department. Statewide, the department has a non-judge workforce of about 2,400 people.
Pursuant to the General Fund appropriation, this past August the Chief Justice ordered the courts and probation to make a four percent cut. This was achieved through a mandatory three-day furlough for every employee (judges were excluded from this because of Constitutional provisions). A hiring freeze was instituted, as was a six-week delay in filling judicial vacancies; there was also a shift in the use of some cash funds. These measures are projected to result in a $7.1 million dollar savings.
The Judicial Department started fiscal year 2003 with a budget of $177.4 million. There is speculation (which perhaps will be reality by the time you receive this Docket) that the department will be asked to reduce costs an additional six percent. That would require the immediate layoff of more than 700 employees or mandatory court closures of six weeks before the current fiscal year ends on June 30, 2003.
Obviously, court closures would stop citizens’ access to the courts, which currently are receiving over 11,000 new case filings each week. As far as public safety, more than 52,000 people are on probation now and being supervised—fewer probation officers would mean fewer people being supervised or less-intense supervision.
The Judicial Department is proposing that the legislature increase current filing fees as a source of funding to avoid layoffs. Colorado’s court fees are among the lowest in the nation. Increasing civil filing fees by 50 percent (about $45 more in district court and $15 more in county court) would bring Colorado’s court fees to the mid-range of other states. This could generate an additional 8 to 12 million dollars each year.
The department has requested continuing the current funding budget for this year, and has no new requests for programs or personnel.
While no one wanted to see filing fees go up, the DBA trustees voted to support the fee increases as the only alternative to keep the courts adequately staffed and open to the public. What can you do? Call the bar association’s lobbyist Michael Valdez at (303) 824-5309, and coordinate with him if you know a legislator or if you know the Governor—the more people calling, the better chance our views will get heard.