Chief Justice addresses Legislative Committee re: problems facing the Judiciary
On Tuesday, Nov. 18, Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. lead the entire Supreme Court to a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on the Judiciary in Frankfort. He discussed the problems of the Judiciary in facing a fast growing caseload at a time of less money being available to the Judiciary to handle the problem The Chief Justice predicted that the judicial system would be facing a shortfall in revenue approaching $38 million dollars by the end of the current fiscal year.
Justices Cunningham, Noble, Abramson, Schroeder, Scott, and Venters accompanied the Chief Justice in support of his report to the Legislative Committee. Their attendance helped to emphasize the seriousness of the funding problems facing the Judicial Branch of Ky. State Government.
In response to a question from Rep. Greg Stumbo regarding the number of judges in the Senior Judge program, Minton replied that until the end of the time period in which judges may elect to enter the Senior Judge program (Jan. 31, 2009) he will not know for sure, since judges don’t have to declare their intention until January, but he opined that the number of active Senior Judges could reach 90 judges. The Legislature in its last session refused to extend the Senior Judge program past Jan. of 2009, and as a result a number of judges who likely would have remained on the bench, have taken advantage of the enhanced retirement benefits available to Senior Judge participants. Stivers suggested that the Chief Justice could alleviate some of the budget shortfall problem by taking his time in appointing judges to fill the vacancies created by retiring judges. Sen. Stivers said that he had heard the rumor from lawyers that the CJ would be allowing retiring judges to remain in their offices during their five year commitment to the Senior Judge program. Minton said, tonque-in-cheek, that he was “surprised that lawyers would create rumors.” Minton said that one of his challenges as Chief Justice was to “address the caseload backlog”. He said that with the Senior Judges available, he would be able to eliminate the backlog within the next five years. He indicated that the court caseload had grown by 40,000 cases over the last year and the Judicial Branch now handled 1.23 million cases a year.
Some legislators expressed concern about the use of Trial Commissioners in counties which had a resident judge. It appears that the failure of the Legislature to extend the Senior Judge program past Jan. has made their problems greater as it has made it financially attractive for a great number of judges to retire early in order to enter the Senior Judge program before it expires. Any judge who is admitted to the program prior to Jan. 31, 2009 remains in the program, after that date no one will be eligible to enter the program.
The Chief Justice indicated that he might be using Senior Judges to work on judicial projects such as the development of an E-filing system to allow lawsuits and pleadings to be filed electronically. E-filing is becoming very popular and is being used in some Federal Courts.
Sen. Clark asked about the potential of increasing the collection of fines and court costs. Minton indicated that data about outstanding warrants and unpaid costs were now digitized and available online, and that this would help solve the problems in dealing in a timely manner with warrants and court costs.
Sen Jack Westwood spoke in favor of drug treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration.
Sen. Webb spoke out against the practice of felony cases being mediated. She also spoke out against the use of Senior Judges on the Court of Appeals panels, and suggested they should only be used to help out in trial courts. Minton made no response to those opinions.Several legislators expressed their support for drug courts.
State lawmakers today considered the possible effect of a projected $37.8 million shortfall in state court funding in 2011, including less money for personnel and court programs.
“This looming deficit means we must greatly reduce expenditures, or increase appropriations, or face significant reductions in services to the people of the Commonwealth when citizen demands on the Justice system are greater than they have ever been in the history of the Commonwealth,” Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton told the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary.
Since about 88 percent of the budget of the courts is personnel costs, Minton said the Court of Justice has eliminated 73 positions–mostly through retirements or other attrition. Only those jobs deemed “critical” will be filled, he said, including positions in drug court, pretrial services and court designated worker programs.
“As we see it, the continued vitality of statewide services like these have a significant impact on the reduction of inmate populations in county jails and state corrections facilities,” said Minton.
Other cost savings have come from what Minton called the Court of Justice’s enthusiasm to “do a new thing.” What are new are a felony mediation program that allows cases to be settled more quickly, an e-pay system that lets individuals pay court costs and fees by credit and debit card in at least 27 counties so far and an e-warrants program–now in five counties–that expedites the signing or recall of warrants by judges.
Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, the first Vice Chair on the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, explained that a nearly $38 million deficit will be hard to overcome. She said it also makes the chance to expand drug court—which she supports–“bleak.” But Minton, a former drug court judge, spoke strongly in favor of the expansion.
“I think it is one of the tools that we have where if we do it effectively, it does have ramifications beyond us. We collect more child support, we (collect) more taxes, we keep more people out of jail if we effectively do what drug court does,” said Minton. “You’ll find in me a great supporter of drug court.”
A high rate of new cases in the court system concerned some lawmakers. With new trial court cases increasing at a rate of about 40,000 per year, Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, said perhaps law enforcement needs to focus more on violent crime.
“It’s been my concern that the system’s been somewhat upside down, that we haven’t prioritized violent crime,” said Seum. “With all these unfunded mandates, we’re breeding a lot of contempt out there. A lot of people realize that they don’t have to adhere to the law anymore because the court system’s full.”
Action taken by the Court of Justice to implement its current budget, passed during the 2008 Regular Session, has included enhanced pay for deputy court clerks, an increase in civil filing fees, steps to collect uncollected court costs and discouraging diversion programs that generate revenue outside the state court system, said Minton. He said he looks forward to working with the General Assembly in the future.
“As our presence here today should demonstrate, this Court of Justice is committed to promoting and enhancing constructive relationships between the Court of Justice and the General Assembly,” he said. “And I hope (this) is evidence of that commitment to you.”