Chief Justice John Broderick reminded legislators that the state courts in New Hampshire are suffering under the budget constraints in state government. The Chief Justice addressed a Joint Convention of the legislature to present his every other year State of the Judiciary speech.
The judiciary is the third co-equal branch of government along with the executive and legislative branches. But the courts operate pretty much under the radar screen of the press and public except when there is a major criminal case. But every day, thousands of citizens are affected by the justice determined within the court system. Justice Broderick noted that for citizens using the courts that "their very lives are affected when access to justice is impeded or delayed."
Delivering justice in difficult times was the theme of the Chief Justice’s comments. He said "these are sobering times, the most sobering in my lifetime" where "for the last year the economy has been the elephant in every room in America." He then ticked off difficult choices made by the court system to reduce costs. These included eliminating stenographers by using recording systems, cutting mileage reimbursement for judges and staff to the lowest levels in state government, stopped paying for bar and professional dues for judges and staff, reduced budgets for judicial education and training and is consolidating some districts courts.
About 50 of 614 staff positions are vacant and seven of the 59 judge positions have been vacant for many months. That was highlighted as there were only three, not the usual four associate justices of the Supreme Court, introduced into Representatives’ Hall. No one has been named to replace Richard Galway who retired as a Supreme Court Justice creating a vacancy on our highest bench. On top of that, the courts helped the Governor by returning $2 million from the current year appropriation to close the state’s budget gap. Adding all of these reductions in spending together is one indicator of the pressure on state government, in this case the court system, to operate in very tough economic times.
Chief Justice certainly wasn’t complaining to the legislature about the finances of the courts. But, he was pointing out the problems the courts face with its reduced budget. And there will be plenty of work ahead, too, given that individuals have a constitutional right to access the system to have their day in court. As the Justice Broderick said, "the Judicial Branch does not have programs it can cut or delay … we are the program." The system handled 230,000 cases over the past year.
The challenges for the courts are clear. The courts must deal with a dramatically increasing number of citizens who represent themselves instead of hiring an attorney most often because they cannot afford one. This means that parties must be helped through the process which entails additional staff and judge time. The Judicial System is behind in the use of technology, is struggling to hire and retain high quality staff and the need for enhanced court security continues to be a major concern.
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While the House met for three days with a schedule filled with controversial votes, the pace of the Senate remained leisurely in comparison. That will all change after "cross over day" on April 9 when all the bills passed by the House will end up in Senate committees for public hearings. The Senate did vote with a super majority (19-4) to send a constitutional amendment (CACR 9) to the House. The amendment would move terms for governors from two to four years but only after Governor Lynch, our 80th governor, does not run for re-election. If approved by the House, the amendment would be on the ballot in November, 2010 for voters to decide. New Hampshire gubernatorial elections would be held in non presidential election years based on the amendment.
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Senators are very attentive to the work in front of us. But, the dozens of emails hitting our computers each day show how strongly people feel about bills that have recently passed the House. The gay marriage, repeal of the death penalty and the medical marijuana bills are all on their way to the Senate. Governor Lynch has pledged to veto the repeal of the death penalty which is also actively opposed by Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. All three bills, of course, draw citizen comments from each Senator’s district as well from across the state.
The state budget bills will be coming to the Senate soon, too. The House Finance Committee will be voting on HB 1 and H2 this week with votes by the entire House scheduled for April 8. Senate Finance Committee Chair, Lou D’Allesandro (Manchester) has scheduled briefings on the appropriations side of the budget for April 10, 13 and 14. He also plans to take the committee to Laconia and Manchester to allow citizen input into the budget process the week of April 13. As Chair of the Ways and Means Committee, I plan to have our first meeting on revenue projections on April 21.
There remain major deficits in the current fiscal year budget. March is the largest month of the year in terms of revenue coming into the state coffers. And money is lagging with only deposits today and tomorrow left to fill the gap.
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