Santa Fe, NM – The state's judicial system is starving, but its workers will continue to ration. Still, the courts may face closures if budget problems can't be remedied. That's what New Mexico's Supreme Court chief justice told state lawmakers Tuesday.
In a joint session of House and Senate, Chief Justice Charles Daniels didn't sugar-coat the situation: courts are on the verge of closing because of budget cuts.
"The financial crisis is actually increasing workloads for the courts," Daniels said. "And you can look at the figures and you can see it. Increased foreclosures, debt collections, family conflicts, criminal cases, and so many other cases that we don't have any choice but to accept and resolve."
Workloads have increased 7 percent, he said, in a time when budgets have been cut 10 percent. Daniels says the judicial division has renegotiated building leases on courthouses, closed magistrate courts, cut back on trainings, and travel.
"We've issued orders that no judicial branch travel will be reimbursed at the full statutory rate, it's authorized by statute," he said. "What that essentially does is require our judges and staff and jurors and witnesses to subsidize state government. But we thought it was necessary to do."
Daniels said despite the legislature's plan to spend 137 million dollars on the courts next year, the judicial division still faces an 800-thousand dollar shortfall that has to be filled to keep the courts open now. He also said cuts have been made to the state's drug and DWI courts, and money has been saved there.
"But they don't really save money for the taxpayers who pay the bill, we've analyzed it. You can see in black and white how cuts in the DWI and drug courts increase costs that the taxpayers pay for for prisons and jails and law enforcement and public defenders and CYFD and other tax-funded agencies."
Daniels added that the judicial system has just 75 percent of the judges it needs.
"We need thirty more judeships but we're not gonna ask you for them. We critically need ten, but we won't ask you for those either, because we honestly think we can get by without them this year. We do need one though, and I wanna tell you about that because it's literally a case of life or death for the justice system in part of our state."
The Eighth Judicial District, Daniels says, which includes Taos, Raton, and Clayton, has just two judges, creating the greatest imbalance in the state between workload and judges. Any time one judge is off a case, the other has to travel to fill in, creating a vacancy in his own court. So a bill has been submitted to create one more judgeship in the eighth district. But meanwhile, more judicial cuts are proposed. The Legislative Finance Committee, or LFC, recommends a 1 percent reduction. Daniels notes that Governor Susana Martinez proposes a 1 and a half percent cut.
"That would kill us," Daniels says. "It would. And we wanna work with the governor and be able to show the facts and figures we were showing to LFC before the governor became the governor. And so we hope to work together to avoid that kind of cut. Because you'll see padlocks on the doors if we have to cut another percent and a half. Because our budget has been going down each year at the same time the workload has been going up."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith says Daniels impressed him in government reorganization meetings last year, talking about judicial employees making financial sacrifices.
"But we didn't hear that from the rest of state government, just flat didn't hear that," Smith contends. "We're gonna do every attempt, make every attempt that we can to make certain that we fund them as best we can so we can keep the courts open."
Smith says he hopes to "find a middle ground" with the governor on judicial cuts by being more selective in how they'll fall. The courts, meanwhile, like many other services in the state, continue to starve and ration, while they wait for sustenance the economy may bring. There is a glimmer of hope: Smith says the state's revenues still seem to be on the rise, perhaps an indication the economy has turned around for good. For a while.