Friday, December 4, 2009

State Budgets and Courts

The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities is projecting that state deficits will total $178 billion in 2010 with 41 states looking at shortfalls. State court budget reductions have been widespread, as reported recently with regard to Massachusetts in particular, in the New York Times editorial page. Ten states are actively looking at reengineering their services: Alabama, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont. They are looking at staffing to the most efficient level, using technology to the utmost, and tackling structural and governance issues that might be politically untouchable in better times.

Utah is a particularly interesting and dramatic example. Doubling filing fees there in the last legislative session allowed them to sustain "only" a 5% decrease in their unified state court budget, but they have gone much further to examine every aspect of their delivery of court services. They have accelerated e-filing, e-payments, e-documents and e-warrants; radically reorganized their clerk of court operations; downsized by 12% and reorganized their administrative office of the courts (the counterpart to OCA); instituted remote hearings, meetings and training; automated administrative functions in human resources, payroll and purchasing; required evidence-based practices in the provision of services, particularly juvenile justice treatment; and eliminating court reporters in favor of digital recording. Their Judicial Council has begun to look closely at contoversial judicial productivity issues, such as moving judicial vacancies to areas of greatest need, restructuring the use of senior judges by building them into the regular calendar, training judges in mediation and structured judicial settlement conferences to move their civil dockets more rapidly, and providing judges with cross-jurisdiction for domestic and juvenile cases. They propose to mandate by rule that all citation cases be filed electronically by law enforcement by a date certain in the near future, tied to automating their justice of the peace courts. They are going to contract with interpreters for a 40 hour week rather than case-by-case, working remotely and saving travel costs. They are consolidating all jury coordination services, and eliminate seperate clerk counters for district and juvenile courts. And, the are going to limit filing sites to one per county and eliminate or transfer personnel, and are further looking at reducing from 54 sites to 8 sites statewide. They are studying jurisdictional changes to use justice courts more efficiently, consolidating administrative districts to provide better distribution of resources and eliminate duplicate administration, and consolidating warrant issuance to a statewide function.

With the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts advising that our sales tax revenue in October 2009 is down almost 13% from 2008, these issues may become increasingly relevant for us. Much more information is available on this topic at the National Center for State Courts' Budget Resource Center.

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