Justice: Cuts may hit trial courts

What if you want a divorce but can’t get one because court is closed for lack of money?
Or if you face a trial and can’t get a hearing because the judge’s travel money ran out?
It could happen next year, said Chief Justice William Waller Jr., who directs the operations of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Waller posed his concerns Monday when he spoke to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which is considering budget requests from all the state’s agencies for Fiscal Year 2011, which begins July 1.
But Waller’s concerns go deeper than whether the state court system will receive enough funds to operate for the coming fiscal year.
He’s worried about a shutdown May 1 in regional circuit and chancery courts.
Why?
Because, like other state agencies, the court system took a $2.9 million cut this year when the Legislature cobbled together a state government budget in the midst of toughening economic times.
“We will not be able to operate, if we don’t get a deficit appropriation,” Waller told them, saying after some financial adjustments, the circuit and chancery courts need the $1.7 million in general funds lost during current-year budget cuts.
A deficit appropriation is legislative action to OK funds for a previous year’s budget.
The funds go to pay 99 judges’ salaries, travel, supplies and staff.
Ben Creekmore of New Albany, district attorney for seven Northeast Mississippi counties, on Friday said a bit facetiously about the looming situation, “I guess we’ll try to get everything done before May.”
James Roberts of Pontotoc, a former state Supreme Court justice and now a circuit judge, says closing the courts would be an “extreme” result of budget difficulties.
“We’ve already seen limitations” on court budgets, he noted, saying a hiring freeze and travel constraints already are in effect.
But to shut down the state courts system indeed would be problematic, assessed Roberts.
“In my personal opinion, if I could get to a courthouse, I would hold court,” he said.
For Fiscal Year 2010, the entire general fund appropriations to all three branches of state government was $5 billion.
Funding to operate the courts system, minus most county and justice courts, came to $51.9 or 0.1 percent of the general fund spending.
Waller’s Fiscal Year 2011 request comes to $57.9 million.
At the budget hearing in Jackson last week, state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo told Waller the court cuts were not out of line with those to other agencies.
But Waller told him it’s enough for only 10 months of operations, and then something will have to happen.
Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi told Waller he recognized the importance to fund one of the state’s three branches of government.
“We hope we can meet your request,” McCoy told him, describing it as “very meager.”
Monday, the joint committee begins its second week of hearings.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal