Monday, March 10, 2008

State of the Union pt. 5

More news from the Legislature. It seems that the concept of cutting the budget has caught our lawmakers by surprise. Chief Justice Saufley brought the budgetary concerns to the folks on the appropriations committee over two weeks ago. Now they're claiming that the recommendation to close the building is unconstitutional. Well... they're right! Due process applies to all Mainers, not just the lucky few whose arraignments aren't scheduled until June or later. The point is that our oh so wise members of the appropriations committee are scrambling to C.Y.A. themselves (former and current members of the military should recognize that acronym). They don't want the blame for shutting down the Courts to fall on their shoulders. If these folks don't like the budgetary cuts and other hard decisions being made in light of the budget crisis, tap into the rainy day fund. After all, does the state of Maine have to be swallowed whole by a flood for this Government to wake up and realize it's been raining for a long time and isn't going to stop anytime soon? If you're disturbed with how our government has been handling financial affairs in this state, pick up the phone or write a letter to your local representative and demand that they take responsible action... and more importantly, work on curing the financial malaise in this state and not just the symptoms.

Lawmakers' reaction cool to courts' budget options

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service
Monday, March 10, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

AUGUSTA, Maine — Options outlined by court officials as solutions to the state’s budget shortfall, including suspending criminal trials for six weeks, received a chilly response from members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

"We are insisting they come back with proposals that do not infringe on the constitutional rights of citizens," said Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, who serves on both the Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee. "These proposals to suspend are the court’s proposals, not the proposal of the Appropriations Committee or the Judiciary Committee."

The possible suspension of criminal trials for six weeks has upset defense lawyers, the Maine Civil Liberties Union and county officials. Counties would end up paying to house inmates awaiting trial.

"This is very troubling that the judicial branch would even be considering not doing criminal trials when there is a constitutional right," said Rep. Jeremy Fischer, D-Presque Isle, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

State Court Administrator Ted Glessner took the brunt of the often pointed criticism from lawmakers at an evening meeting of the Appropriations Committee last week. He defended the consideration of "all possibilities" because the judiciary needs to find $2.7 million within its budget to pay for constitutionally mandated indigent defense that is running higher than projected.

In addition, he said, the courts have been asked to find $2.1 million in cuts as their share of filling the more than $200 million state budget gap.

"If we did not process criminal cases for a period of six weeks, that would actually save $500,000," he said. "Another step could be to not hold civil jury trials for that period."

Committee members were not buying his argument. They pointed out that counties would be paying to house inmates awaiting trials for a longer period of time, and even though cases were not being processed, court staff would still be working.

"That’s not going to help anything," said Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, "because all it is going to do is to dam up the cases and then you are going to have a floodgate effect when you do open the doors."

She made it clear that delaying trials of any type was unacceptable to her and that the courts need to find other savings within their budget to meet needs.

The courts receive about $58 million from the state’s General Fund to operate the judicial system; they also get funds from other sources including federal grants. The judicial branch has received funding increases for the last three budget years greater than the average increase for the rest of state government.

"It seems to me that there should be money that can be found in your other accounts to make sure the indigent defense is paid for," Fischer said.

Sen. Karl Turner, R-Cumberland, told Glessner that options that delayed justice were not acceptable and one-time fixes won’t work.

"As we look out to [fiscal year] ’09, I don’t see things getting any better," he said. "We need structural changes that will provide ongoing savings."

Turner said there are new positions in the budget that have not been filled, and the courts should consider not filling them at all. He said the courts also should consider what other agencies of state government are doing to streamline administrative services and see what can be adapted.

In fact, during a work session on the judicial branch budget last month, that committee discussed a wide range of possibilities, from surcharges on fines imposed by judges to closing courthouses.

"If we close rural courthouses, we will have two systems of justice, one for the rural areas of the state and one for the cities," said Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, a member of the Judiciary Committee. "I don’t want to see that."

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, in a meeting with the Judiciary Committee last month, said she does not want to recommend court closings, but said it may be necessary. She said courts with the lowest volume of cases that now have judges available a day or two a week would be targets.

Among the courthouses that fit that criteria are Madawaska, Lincoln, Bridgton, Rumford and Dover-Foxcroft.

Mills said that while lawmakers do not want to "micromanage" the court budget, there are a lot of expenditures that should be considered, from the planned increase in court security screeners to mileage expenses. Judges get paid mileage from their home to the courthouse where they are sitting, not just from where they are usually assigned.

Glessner said a lot of the ideas are under consideration for the second year of the budget year, but the immediate problem is the $700,000 that must be saved by June 30.

"That’s why we are looking at options like not processing cases," he said. "We are running out of time."

He told lawmakers that Saufley will be making some decisions "in a matter of days" on what the courts will do to meet the budget reduction and will meet with both committees to discuss the options.

William T. Bly, Esq.

Maine OUI Lawyer