State Judicial Budget Woes

May 11, 2012

Some of Calloway County’s 12 deputy court clerks are entering data at their desks and filing paperwork in massive filing cabinets while others assist county residents at walk-up windows. The clerks, like many are leery of state budget which cut most state agencies 8.4%.

This budget is unique because it reaches deep into the coffers of other governmental branches, namely the state judiciary. This fiscal year, the courts received the full brunt of the 8.4% cut. Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton says budget thinning on this level is unprecedented.

"This is the first time in the history of the Commonwealth that the courtrooms of the state will be dark because there’s not enough money to fund the operation of courts."

Chief Justice Minton’s office is responsible for the administration of budgetary measures. He says he was forced to cut costs wherever he could.

"I was confronted with whether deeper cuts including people losing their jobs would happen.And so the lesser of the evils was the temporary furlough situation. "

 So he instated three furlough days in the first half of the 2012-13 fiscal year. With 86% of the state judiciary budget going to salary and benefits, there was no other place to cut but within the professional staff.

"We’ve given up just about all we can give and now all we can give is people. And we’ve cut fat but we’re now cutting bone, that is the people who run the court system."

A second hardship stems from the fact all elected judicial employees, like judges, county clerks and state attorneys are immune from the effects of furloughs. The state constitution forbids elected officials from having their income reduced while in office. So Chief Justice Minton considered furloughs, and knew he and the other judges across the state could not actually take part in the cost cutting measures the judiciary needed. Only the non-elected working professionals would feel the pinch…

"I believe it is my responsibility as the leader, if you will, of the court system; I’m going to donate the three days just like the rest of the court system is doing. I can’t have my pay docked but I can voluntarily give it back to the state, so that’s what I’m going to do. "

Whether or not judges are in office during the furlough days, all courthouses will be closed due to a lack of staff.  As a result Courthouses across the state won’t process legal paperwork, issue drivers licenses or hold trials in both civil and criminal court. But crime won’t stop, law enforcement will not cease arresting people, and legal briefs will continue to be written, so professionals like those in Calloway County Clerk Linda Avery’s office will have to cram more work into less time.

"You know we do what we have to do it doesn’t matter how many days we have to do it in we have the same amount of work. We just have to get it done. And if we don’t get out work done the public suffers. "

Avery’s twelve deputy county clerks are among those to feel the bite of the furloughs. While she is an elected official, serving a six year term,her staff is a dedicated group of non-elected professionals, whom the Chief Justice already considers underpaid…

"Our deputy clerks and the judicial secretaries are operating at salary levels that are frankly at or below the federal minimum poverty line. So three unpaid days really creates a financial burden for them."

The cuts in place only address the shortfall for the next six months, and Minton says the new budget cuts will remain in place for two fiscal years. The Chief Justice will have to enact more cuts in order to balance the budget for the next 18 months.