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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shortfall may close state courts for weeks

BY FRED MANN
The Wichita Eagle

State courts in Kansas will have to close their doors for one week each month beginning in February if the Legislature doesn't restore $8 million to the judiciary budget, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Davis said Friday.

The courts would close and place staff on involuntary unpaid leave the weeks of Feb. 15, March 15, April 5, May 10 and 24, and June 7, Davis said in a letter to court employees.

Judges would still be paid and perform duties with mandated deadlines, such as criminal cases with speedy trial concerns, search warrants, first appearances in criminal cases and certain hearings, said Ron Keefover, court spokesman.

But judges wouldn't deal with matters such as marriage licenses and wills that don't have mandated deadlines, he said.

House Majority Leader Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said the Legislature has known about the problem since spring and will try to help as quickly as possible when lawmakers convene in January.

The shortfall was created by mistake during the 2009 session, he said. The Senate cut the judicial branch by $11 million under the mistaken assumption that the funds could be made up through surcharges on docket fees that were approved in other legislation. But the surcharges had been capped at $10 per fee. The two bills should have been resolved in a conference committee, O'Neal said.

Gov. Mark Parkinson and lawmakers vowed then to rectify it, O'Neal said. Parkinson allotted $8.1 million from his budget to cover the shortfall.

But because new estimates project state revenue will be down $235 million from April figures, fixing it won't be easy, O'Neal said.

Lawmakers may need to take several steps to at least get the court closings and furloughs reduced to a few days rather than weeks, O'Neal said.

"Because everybody agrees that was an unintended consequence, we're going to try to do everything we can to restore as much of that as we can," he said.

Shutting the courtroom doors for a week would be "draconian," Keefover said.

"We've already taken draconian measures" to cover the shortfall, he said.

After the cuts last spring, the courts froze hiring to save $1.2 million over the fiscal year. So far that target is being met, Keefover said, but employee morale has taken a hit.

The courts also eliminated temporary part-time hours, saving $800,000 so far, he said.

They also reduced the use of retired judges who helped district courts keep pace with dockets. That measure has saved $96,000 so far, Keefover said.

The surcharge on filings is on track to raise its projected $5 million, Keefover said.

The judicial branch also has obtained $830,500 from the federal stimulus package to help cover the shortfall, he said.

If courtrooms close, judges would continue to work because the state constitution prohibits the Legislature or anybody else from reducing judges' salaries, Keefover said.

But they wouldn't have clerical support or computer capabilities, because they wouldn't have technology staff to turn on the computers, and because clerks have the access codes for entering data on court records, Keefover said.

Clark Owens, the acting chief judge for Sedgwick County, said judges can't put off some cases, such as first appearances in criminal cases and speedy-trial cases. But the paperwork for them wouldn't get done until clerks return the following week.

Courts also wouldn't be able to hold trials, preliminary hearings or any other proceedings that require court reporters to take records.

Judges presiding over criminal trials that have speedy-trial requirements would simply have to figure out how to handle them, Owens said.

Judges would have to perform clerical duties in some emergency deadline cases, he said.

Owens said litigants would be hurt most by the closings as cases are backlogged and schedules are delayed.

Judges are still trying to figure out how to deal with the potential shutdowns, he said.

' "It's such a foreign idea. We're all caught off guard on how to plan for this," Owens said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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