September 27, 2016

Courts announce budget reductions, say further would have big consequences

The Administrative Office of the Courts announced cost-cutting measures designed to help balance the state budget amid the current crisis. Further cuts, however, would be painful and impact the courts, according to the state Supreme Court Chief Justice.

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles W. Daniels

New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles W. Daniels

The announcement Tuesday said the judiciary will reduce spending by about $500,000 by dropping the mileage reimbursement for travel. The reduced reimbursements will affect “judges, staff, jurors, interpreters and court-ordered witnesses,” according to the press release.

Beginning Oct. 1, the payment rate will drop from 46 cents per mile to 28 cents per mile. The order to cut costs came from the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels wrote a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez and a separate, though identical, letter to legislators last week stating that any further cuts would be detrimental to the courts system.

“The Judiciary’s ability to protect public safety and provide an acceptable justice system for our citizens will be critically diminished by reductions of our current modest appropriates beyond an additional 1%,” Daniels wrote. “Even a 1% reduction could begin impairing operation of some drug courts and other important judicial services, although with our mileage reimbursement reduction and other self-imposed money-saving measures, we think we can function for this fiscal year with a 1% mandated reduction in general fund appropriations for the judicial branch.”

Earlier this year, Martinez directed agencies under her control to come up with plans on how to cut spending by five percent. Six weeks later, it’s still not clear if the agencies have a plan to do so.

Legislators and the governor’s office are still trying to come to an agreement on the budget before a special session.

The judicial branch, however, says a 5 percent cut would be devastating, especially in the context of the judiciary seeing smaller appropriations as a percentage of the overall general fund.

Most of the funding for the courts goes toward staff, including judges.

“We already are severely short-staffed, with a statewide vacancy rate of 12.57%, and a vacancy rate above 15% in our three largest courts in urban areas and in our Magistrate Courts that serve the most rural parts of the state,” Daniels wrote.

Daniels added that a 5 percent reduction would “eliminate various important but non-core judicial functions” and “eliminate some drug court programs entirely” among other things. Even a 3 percent cut, per Daniels, would result in reducing all drug court funding from the Administrative Office of the Courts by 20 percent statewide.

“In any civilized form of government and in our own representative democracy in particular, a functioning justice system is essential to public safety,” Daniels wrote. “Without the ability of the judicial branch to enforce our state’s laws, without the availability of courts to peacefully address and resolve disputes by application of the rule of law, without the ability of our justice system to make the constitution and laws more than empty words on paper, we are left to the law of the jungle.”

Letter From Chief Justice Daniels to Gov. Susana Martinez by New Mexico Political Report on Scribd