Archive for Tuesday, April 6, 2010

District Court furloughs to start Friday

April 6, 2010

— The Tenth Judicial District Court of Kansas at the Johnson County Courthouse will be closed on Friday for the first of four court furloughs forced on the judicial system by lack of funding from the Kansas Legislature.

The Courthouse also will be closed for the following three Fridays: April 16, April 23, and May 7. The furlough closings of all district courts in Kansas were ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court on March 12.

During the furlough days, Johnson County District Court may still attend to a limited amount of “critical” business, including conducting first appearances, setting bonds, determining probable cause for arrests without warrants, issuing warrants, and conducting juvenile detention and temporary custody hearings.

“No court hearings will be held unless they are of a time-sensitive and critical nature,” Johnson County District Court Administrator Michael McLain said.

Other Courthouse activities, such as case filings, payments of court fees, and applications for a marriage license, will not be processed during the scheduled closings.

The District Court furloughs include:

• Closing of the District Court Clerk’s Office;

• Limited services at the District Court Trustees and Court Services offices only by Johnson County-funded staff; and,

• District Court judges will be present, but state-paid employees and support staff will not be at work.

The Courthouse in downtown Olathe, including all Johnson County offices such as the District Attorney and the Sheriff, will be open during the four state furloughs.

The closings cap a funding crisis of the state court system that was circulated for more than a year. The Kansas Supreme Court had announced last year that six weeks of court closings would be needed to keep expenses within the funds available in light of budget reduction by the Kansas Legislature because of the economic downturn and revenue shortfalls facing Kansas.

The issue began in May of 2009 when the Legislature made an error and shorted the Judicial Branch by $10 million.

“The Legislature acknowledged the error almost immediately and pledged to correct the error in January of 2010 upon its return to Topeka,” Johnson County District Court Chief Judge Thomas Foster said. “The Supreme Court decided it could not wait until January to find out whether the $10 million would be restored to its budget.

“The Judicial Branch budget is 98 percent salaries. Therefore, the only way to cut the Judicial Branch budget is to cut people. The Supreme Court imposed a hard hiring freeze beginning June, 2009. There are currently 106 vacancies in the Kansas Court system statewide as a result of this hiring freeze. The vacancies include probation officers, court clerks, administrative assistants and research attorneys. This hiring freeze, the elimination of over 100 part time positions and the cancellation of judicial training has reduced the original $10 million budget gap.”

The state’s economic crisis and decreasing revenues, however, impeded the Legislature’s ability to correct the budgeting error. In November of 2009, Governor Mark Parkinson announced that only $5 million of the $10 million error could be funded.

During the current 2010 session, the Legislature approved a $5 million emergency supplemental appropriation to the state courts’ budgets to correct the 2009 error. That funding law was signed by the governor on March 5. The bill also reduced all judges’ salaries by 5 percent for the rest of the year, but the money saved by the salary reduction to judges was not earmarked for use by the Judicial Branch to reduce the number of furlough days.

The additional funding, however, enables the state courts to void six weeks of furloughs for the first half of the year and, instead, take the four designated days of statewide furloughs in April and May that were announced on March 12 by the Kansas Supreme Court. State employees will not be paid for the scheduled furlough Fridays.

“Here in Johnson County District Court, we had 54,037 cases filed last year. Closing the courts for weeks would have had a catastrophic effect on the public’s access to justice,” Chief Judge Foster said. “It is extremely disappointing to us that the public’s access to the courts is being eroded, even if it is only for four days this time.”

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