By Chief Justice Walter L. Murphy of the New Hampshire Superior Court:
There is apparently a serious misunderstanding about just what amount of money has been appropriated for court operations. The widely publicized statement that the Superior Court received a 15% increase over its previous budget is just plain wrong. The net appropriation to the entire judicial branch represented a total of 1% over the previous budget. The Superior Court share of the appropriation increased by $263,972, or about 2% for the fiscal year. These figures calculated by the Administrative Office of the Courts, and reviewed by the Governors budget director, Linda Hodgdon, provide an accurate picture of the amount available for operations of the court.
As each court budget is developed, the legislature appropriates certain funds in the Budget Act and then reduces that amount, directing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to allocate that reduction among specified line item appropriations in the budget.
For fiscal year 2002, of the $59.6 million requested for the judicial branch, the legislature appropriated $57.2 million and then reduced it by $4.4 million. The net result? An increase of 1-2% over the previous fiscal year. It is simply unrealistic to expect that any enterprise can operate with a 1-2% increase over the prior year.
In the past, the reductions were implemented to a great measure by keeping employee vacancies unfilled, which resulted in unacceptable delays in the processing of cases. Other reductions included cutting juror expenses, cutting back on security, library expense and forgoing the purchase of much-needed equipment, including up-to-date technology. The public should be aware that the courts continue to operate a DOS-based computer system so out-dated that upgrades are no longer available.
Recognizing our responsibility to live within the financial constraints imposed by the budget, we have made some hard decisions in the past. We can no longer ignore the fact that to cut staff is not an option not if we are to fulfill our responsibility to the public. Our staff is as dedicated and hardworking as I have ever seen, but they are overworked, underpaid and certainly under appreciated. If the staff is cut, the backlog of paperwork continues to grow and our citizens have to wait longer for resolution of their cases.
Not holding jury trials in two months of the current fiscal year, and three months the following year is expected to save an estimated $250,000 of our precious financial resources and will have the least effect on the least number of members of the public. To suggest, as some have, that somehow the courts will shut down during those periods is simply baseless and irresponsible. Judge and staff time during those months will be dedicated to the resolution of non-jury matters, such as domestic relations cases which represent about 43% of the Superior Court caseload. These are non-jury cases that have real personal impact--child custody, family visitation rights, support payments and domestic violence.
The work of the Superior Court (51,000 cases disposed of in 2000) and the District Court (175,000 cases disposed of in 2000) touches the lives of over 500,000 persons a year. Yet, the judiciary, the entire third independent branch of government, receives only 1.6% of the overall state operating budget. While we can continue our best efforts to provide services to the public within our fiscal constraints by attempting to exercise the wisdom of Solomon, the miracle of the loaves and fishes is beyond our grasp.
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Chief Justice Murphy was appointed to the Superior Court in 1983 and was named acting Chief Justice in April 2000 and Chief Justice in October 2000.