Kentucky Chief Justice Appears Before Budget Panel

Justice is not an optional government program. That’s the message delivered to a legislative budget panel by the head of Kentucky’s judicial system. Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh reports from Frankfort.

Kentucky’s constitution, says Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton, makes justice the primary obligation of state government. And Section 120 of the constitution commands adequate funding for the courts. But Minton understands the dire fiscal situation in which the state finds itself.

“And as a responsible partner in government, we accept our obligation to share in reductions that must be made to balance the state’s budget,” says Minton.

Minton says that why, in 2008, the Judicial Branch started streamlining its operations – reducing personnel, cutting off cell phones and slicing office supplies – resulting in efficiencies of more than $9 million.

“In the last year, we remitted – we remitted – $31.9 million, or 5.7% of our appropriation, back to the state,” says Minton. “We continually look for ways to become a leaner and more efficient court system.”

But the chief justice warns, deeper cuts will likely mean furloughs and layoffs.

“Eighty-six percent of our budget is devoted to personnel,” says Minton. “There is little we can do before people are affected by budget reductions.”

Minton says a 15-day furlough of court employees would save almost $6 million, but would also close courthouse doors across the commonwealth.

“I can’t quantify for you today, the magnitude of the impact of closing courthouse doors and what it would have on the dockets that we daily must attend to – to the populations in the county jails where these closed courthouses would be located, and to our economy of the commonwealth in general,” says Minton.

To avoid such consequences, Minton told a House budget subcommittee, the Judicial Branch needs an additional $112 million above base funding next biennium.

“This we need to ensure that the court system continues to function as it does today,” says Minton.

Minton says there are no new buildings in the budget request. Those new courthouses seen going up around the state have already been authorized. And Minton left legislators with this sobering thought.

“We must not be forced, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, to ration justice in Kentucky,” says Minton.

In the audience was Franklin Circuit Clerk Sally Jump, who says the chief justice makes many cogent points. She says her office is already feeling the effects of earlier budget cuts.

“The circuit clerks have a staffing task force report that already showed many counties were understaffed,” says Jump. “According to the statistics, my office was one of those. So, when you’re already understaffed, and then you have cuts to your staff or vacancies that you cannot fill, it has a major impact on how to keep the doors open.”

Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, who chairs the Budget Review Subcommittee on Justice and Judiciary, says he hears the concerns, and lawmakers will do all they can, but their choices are limited.

“Right now, we have only one choice, really,” says Crenshaw. “And that is to live within what we have. And so, there’s going to have to be some modifications to balance this budget. And those modifications mean some things are going to have to be reduced.”

Recommendations from Crenshaw’s subcommittee will help shape the next biennial budget. House action on a new state spending plan is expected soon.