(Host) The Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, says a chronic under funding of the state’s judicial system is beginning to have a serious impact on Vermont’s court system.
Chief Justice Paul Reiber told a special legislative panel today that he’s projecting a million dollar deficit in this year’s budget. And Reiber says there are no easy ways to deal with the shortfall.
VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:
(Kinzel) It’s quite unusual to see all five members of the Vermont Supreme Court at a legislative hearing but this is what happened when the Joint Fiscal committee took testimony concerning the budget outlook for the state’s judicial system.
Chief Justice Paul Reiber told members of the committee that the Judiciary faces a million dollar deficit in the current fiscal year. Reiber says this is happening primarily because the courts weren’t given enough money to cover personnel costs.
Reiber says the Judiciary has 350 employees working at 62 sites in Vermont. He says several dozen vacant positions aren’t being filled because of budget constraints. He says it’s unfair to ask other employees to pick up more of this workload:
(Reiber) "I think my message here today is that this is not an inexpensive system the way it’s structured, and you’ve got to pay for it. And I think there are choices that can be made and I recognize that they are difficult choices."
Reiber noted that one of those difficult choices could involve a restructuring of the state’s probate court system. Each of Vermont’s four southern counties has two probate courts while the state’s other ten counties have one each.
But Reiber acknowledged that trying to reduce the number of southern probate courts would draw a lot of opposition from some lawmakers.
Reiber says the court system is in a unique position in state government because it’s expected to offer its services even if budget cuts are put into place:
(Reiber)"We have a system that’s constitutionally mandated-mandated by statutes, by laws, a system of laws not just of courts-obligations to perform functions under these laws; we have very, very little choice with respect to how to save money."
Morrisville Rep. Shap Smith urged his colleagues to back a plan to study the long term financial needs of the Judiciary:
(Smith) "What I am saying is that if we want to address the long term structural issues then I think we need to engage with the Judiciary in rethinking about the way that we deliver these services now, and whether we are delivering them in a way that we should be."
Chief Justice Reiber says the Douglas Administration has proposed reducing the court’s deficit by adding $400,000 to the Judiciary’s budget as part of the 2008 Supplemental Budget bill. That plan will be subject to legislative approval.
For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.