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Regarding cuts, justice not blind

Regarding cuts, justice not blind
Budget slashing easy to see in state courts' loss of jobs, services
By Michele Ames, Rocky Mountain News
June 19, 2003

The state's budget shortfall came home to roost Wednesday as state court administrators announced record job and service cuts necessary to keep a balanced budget.

About 13 percent of the state court staff will be trimmed to get the nearly $11 million in cuts needed after state lawmakers slashed the courts' budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

In total, 94 workers from the statewide judicial staff of 2,266 are being laid off - 60 trial court staffers and 34 people in the probation department. Another 60 are taking voluntary separations - primarily through early retirement. An additional 137 positions are going unfilled.

"I think this is the most serious crisis we've faced since the 1960s, when we formed the state court system," said Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey. "I would hope that people understand that this is not something we're doing by choice."

Karen Salaz, state courts spokeswoman, said the layoff process started a month ago. "Everyone who will be leaving has been told, and many have already left their jobs."
The cuts come at a time when court caseloads have increased by about 7 percent this year, according to court statistics.

All this means that court staffers will have to do more with less. Mullarkey has directed all court administrators to focus their shrunken staffs on issues of public safety, such as making sure restraining orders get out quickly and dealing with child-abuse cases.

Other matters such as civil court cases and basic telephone answering and other jobs done by clerks will either be done more slowly or not at all. Lines at courthouses around the state have increased, as court administrators have been forced to open offices later, close them earlier and shut down over the noon hour to give staffers a chance to process necessary paperwork and do data entry.

Many probation officers who oversee roughly 55,000 offenders in Colorado will see the number of offenders they supervise nearly double - to around 300 per officer.
For those who use the courts every day, the impact of the cuts is obvious.
Jim Hubbell, who specializes in commercial and employment litigation for Kelly Haglund Garnsey & Kahn, said the cutbacks "are getting ridiculous. I know judges who are already answering their own phones in Denver District Court."
He said judges' personal administrative staffs are covering for workers in clerks' offices, and the impact is felt immediately.

"The state is paying judges to do clerical work, and I can tell you that creates a class of very well-educated clerks," he said. Hubbell predicts many commercial cases will get around the unavoidable delays by hiring arbitrators to settle their cases.
"Clients who have means will buy justice by going to arbitration," he said. "With money, you have options. If you're a middle-class couple going through a divorce, you don't have those options."

The budget-cutting is happening across the board, as the state struggles to absorb the nearly $1 billion in reductions handed out by state lawmakers charged with balancing the budget in the second year of tough economic times.

"Lots of people are feeling like we're balancing the budget on their backs," said Sen. Ron Teck, R-Grand Junction. a member of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee. "But the truth is, we're balancing the budget across all the backs we can reach."
Colorado Department of Corrections officials estimate they will lay off around 50 workers by mid-July. They will eventually hold open about 800 jobs to absorb the roughly $54 million in state budget cuts they've taken since 2001.

Court officials were given the go-ahead to increase court fees, but additional discussions of bumping fees up again foundered after Gov. Bill Owens announced his opposition to raising them a second time.

The court-fee increase will make a difference this year. The actual budget cut for the judicial branch was $21 million. Fee increases will make up about $10 million of that amount.
"When you're cutting in judicial, you're cutting the actual people who are providing services to the public," said House Minority Leader Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver. "I was disappointed in the governor's reluctance, or refusal, to let them raise fees so we wouldn't have to come to this position." Owens' office is quick to point out that the cuts in the judicial branch are going on statewide. "The judicial branch is facing the same sort of painful choices that the executive branch has been dealing with over the past year," said Dan Hopkins, Owens' press secretary.

Everyone acknowledges that the budget woes are not only spread across all state agencies but are going on in most state governments across the country. Mullarkey said she's pleased that Colorado courts haven't been forced to resort to the drastic measures taken in other states. In Oregon, courts are being closed completely one day a week and minor property-crimes cases aren't being heard at all.

"The courts are open, and we are continuing to try to move all the cases we get," Mullarkey.


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