There had been hope in state legal circles that with a new chief justice at the helm, Minnesota's court system could regain some budget ground it had lost in the past several years.
Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are former law partners and enjoy a personal relationship close enough to kiddingly malign each other's lack of prowess catching fish. For the past several months leading up to the budget forecast, Magnuson was vocal that the court budget was already cut to the bone. It's $19 million in the hole and needs $54 million in the next biennium just to keep pace. But there was no law firm camaraderie or fishing humor a few weeks ago when the governor singled the court's request as out of line.
"If you look at that request about $37 million of the $54 million is for increased salary and benefits for existing employees," said Pawlenty. "If you think about today's economy, I don't know that they should be expecting significant pay raises and benefit raises and pension increases when the rest of Minnesota isn't getting those."
If Minnesota's court system has to cut into the marrow, it will have lots of company.
Dan Hall of the National Center for State Courts says right now about 17 state court systems are facing serious budget deficits and that the number will grow by 2010.
"Florida, Minnesota, Arizona, California are taking some of the most dramatic hits. The New England states, which are smaller in budget have taken a number of steps like Maine, for example, is no longer staffing their magnetometers as people enter courts. Massachusetts has cut all judicial training," Hall said.
In states such as Utah, revenues continue to fall and the governor has just submitted a plan that calls for cutting the court's budget by 7 percent on top of a 4 percent cut. Utah's court administrator Dan Becker says because the biggest expenditure for courts is staff, it cut its remaining 18 court reporters.
"We rely very heavily on digital recording equipment but after July first we'll rely exclusively on digital recording equipment," Becker said. "That was a very difficult reduction to make but in the instance of court reporters, we did have another way of capturing the record and so we had to make that difficult cut."
Florida's court budget is one of the worst in the country not only because has it had a hiring freeze for the past four years, but it also has one of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the U.S. In the past three years, mortgage foreclosure cases have more than tripled in Florida, which exemplifies one of the problems court systems face in bad economies--cases like mortgage foreclosures go up while states cut funding for the personnel to process those filings.
Three years ago, Florida's courts processed more than 90 percent of that state's mortgage foreclosure cases within a year. Now, they can handle only about 40 percent.
Charles A. Francis is chief judge of the second judicial circuit of Florida and serves as vice chairman of the trial court budget commission for Florida's court system. He says because revenue projections are worse than expected, Florida is on the verge of multiple cuts.
"Although budget cuts have already taken place earlier in the year, we are now going through exercises for further budget cuts for this year and also getting ready to go into the budgets for the next fiscal year, which would require these budget cuts plus another round right on top of them," said Francis.
On the same day that Gov. Pawlenty singled out Minnesota's court budget request, Chief Justice Magnuson released a statement that said the he looks forward to "working with the Governor and the Legislature in the upcoming session to preserve the effective operation of this core government function." The state legislature is back in session on January 6.