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Wis. Chief Justice worried about state budget

By Chris Dickerson | Mar 21, 2013

MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said Thursday the state's 2013-15 executive budget bill could be debilitating to the state's court system.

Assembly Bill 40 was introduced Wednesday at the request of Gov. Scott Walker. Addressing the Joint Committee on Finance, Abrahamson noted that while the judicial system is a co-equal branch of state government, it gets less than 1 percent of the state budget.

She stressed that the branch's budget request was "basically a cost-to-continue budget for state court operations," but said she was testifying with "a greater sense of urgency than ever before."

"And I can tell you that all seven justices are concerned and have taken an active role in many hours of discussion about the budget and its ramifications," Abrahamson said. "My message to you, in brief, is this: If uncorrected, the $17 million lapse provision will significantly and adversely impact the court system and our county partners in courthouses throughout the state-not in theory but in the reality people will face in courthouses across the state. We ask for your help."

Abrahamson said the court asked Walker to eliminate $10.3 million of the $17 million lapse, but that request was denied. She said this is the biggest budget reduction in the history of the court system.

"The lapse will put the judiciary in an unprecedented financial situation and will impact individuals and businesses looking for justice in the courts," she said. "For example, the circuit courts' budget is $189 million for the 2013-2015 biennium. That is 70 percent of the total court system funding. That $189 million consists primarily of personnel costs.

"When personnel costs and other fixed costs and local assistance to counties are subtracted, only $9.6 million remains to lapse. In other words, there's very little flexibility, very little wiggle room in the court's budget. A $17 million lapse is debilitating."

She said the court is in the process of determining how these cuts may be implemented

"None of the options is good for the effective, efficient administration of the justice system," she said. "No option will help us maintain a healthy justice system, a justice system that does not compromise our constitutional and statutory responsibilities."

She said the lapse could result in case delays, collections reduction, information technology and administrative efforts.

"We strongly urge you to remove the $10.3 million portion of the lapse so that the court system can get its job done for the people of Wisconsin," Abrahamson testified.

She also said the court was disappointed that the budget didn't include any judicial compensation increases. She also expressed concern a growing lack of access to justice for litigants because of financial issues.

"We join with others to support state funding to assist indigent self-represented persons in meeting their legal needs," she said. "Increased spending on civil legal services may prevent unwarranted foreclosures or evictions, avoid foster care placements, help people get access to government benefits, and ease court delays. Spending on civil legal services can provide real economic benefits for the state."

Abrahamson did praise Walker's inclusion of proposals to change the classification of the state Law Librarian and to authorize limited mileage reimbursement for out-of-state court interpreters in border counties.

"We also support the Governor's initiatives to ensure properly compensated prosecutors and public defenders," she said. "Experienced prosecutors and defense counsel are necessary for the timely and proper resolution of cases."

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