'We already have too few employees to provide our citizens the justice system they are entitled to and that they critically need' - Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels in letter to the governor
Layoffs, Furloughs, Court Closures Loom
ABQ FREE PRESS STAFF
New Mexico’s courts are feeling the pinch of the state’s cash shortfall, and the chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court is warning that further cuts could lead to court closures and staff layoffs.
Chief Justice Charles Daniels, in a letter sent last week to Gov. Susana Martinez and state legislators, said the judiciary’s “ability to protect public safety and provide an acceptable justice system for our citizens will be critically diminished by reductions of our current modest appropriations beyond an additional 1 percent.”
The state’s 13 judicial districts, which are overseen by the Supreme Court, have been ordered effective Oct. 1 to cut mileage reimbursements for judges, staff and jurors from 46 cents a mile to 29 cents, which will save an estimated $500,000.
The chief justice warned that cutting personnel could cripple the operation of the courts. The current vacancy rate in the court system is 12.57 percent statewide and 15 percent in the three largest court jurisdictions.
“We already have too few employees to provide our citizens the justice system they are entitled to and that they critically need,” Daniels wrote in his letter to the governor. “With these extraordinary vacancy rates, we cannot find any realistic savings by reducing personnel any further or by sending employees we do have home without pay.”
In his letter, Daniels laid out the scenarios that would accompany one percent, 3 percent and 5 percent cuts in the courts’ budget.
A one percent cut could lead to court closures during days of the week and exacerbate turnover rates among employees who were scheduled to get raises. A 3 percent would lead to furloughs, court closures “for periods of time” and cuts to drug courts statewide. A 5 percent cut would lead to even more furloughs and layoffs and further cuts to drug courts and other court programs, according to Daniels’ letter.
Legislators have called on the governor to call a special session of the Legislature as soon as possible to deal with a shortfall of as much as $631 million due to the decline in oil and gas revenues on which the state budget depends. That shortfall includes $200 million the state came up short for the year that ended June 1, and an estimated $431 million shortfall in the year that started July 1. The annual state budget is $6.2 billion.
The governor has not yet called a special session because negotiations with legislators have not yet led to a deal. Additionally, the governor wants legislators to to take up the issue of reinstating the death penalty in New Mexico during the special session.