Court closures raise concern locally

Jackson County Circuit Court judges and employees are bracing for a potential cut in court days that will further strain an already overburdened justice system.

Oregon Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz has ordered all state courts to close on Fridays, beginning March 13. The closures will remain in effect at least through June 30.

The closures come as the Legislature prepares to vote on a proposed $300 million cut in the current year's general-fund budget. Additional court closures and other cutbacks could occur when the Legislature takes up the budget for the 2009-11 biennium, in which the state faces an estimated $3 billion shortfall.

Mark Schiveley, the presiding judge at Jackson County Circuit Court, said he and the other judges, along with key officials at the court, met Friday to discuss the reductions.

"We've been trying to determine how we're going to handle all our court cases with 20 percent less time," Schiveley said.

The Friday closures are made necessary by an $11.1 million cut in the Oregon Judicial Department's 2007-09 budget, approved Friday by the Joint Ways and Means Committee. If approved, the cuts will require all department employees to take 16 unpaid furlough days before the end of June.

Jackson County Circuit Court will lose more than one-third of its current available trial dates as a result of the Friday cuts, said Jim Adams, court administrator. Cases involving children (custody, dependency, termination of parental rights and juvenile justice cases) and public safety (criminal cases and protective orders) will take priority. Civil and corporate litigation will be "placed on the back burner," he said.

"It's a matter of triage," Adams said. "I'm trying to figure out how to reschedule literally thousands of cases."

The backlogging of cases could affect a defendant's right to a speedy trial and a litigant's opportunity to be heard in court in a timely manner, Adams said.

"Anyone arrested from Thursday forward will have to wait to be arraigned on Monday," he said. "That will have an immediate effect on the jail. Clearly we will not meet our constitutional and statutory mandates."

District Attorney Mark Huddleston said his office, a part of the state's executive branch, will remain open five days a week. But the closure will affect his department.

"We can't take a case to court if they're not open," said Huddleston.

Balancing the budget required numerous furlough days for Jackson County's 82 court employees, Schiveley said.

"They will work 80 percent of the time and their paycheck will reflect that," Schiveley said

It will not, however, reduce the judges' salaries, which are set by statute in the state Constitution in order to protect them from political pressures.

"We will continue to work five days a week," Schiveley said.

Budget deficits required similar closures for four months in 2003. Unlike 2003, Friday's closure declaration is for an indefinite period, at least until the 2009-11 biennium budget is set, Schiveley said.

More drastic reductions in court services were avoided when the Legislature reduced proposed general fund cuts for the court system from $16.1 million to $11.1 million, Schiveley said.

He praised Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, for staving off deeper cuts. Buckley is co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

"We're very thankful for his efforts," he said. "It was even worse a week ago. Frankly we were looking at being open half-time."

The Friday closures will affect more than 12,000 trials and other proceedings already scheduled statewide through June. More than 50,000 new cases are filed in Oregon circuit courts each month.

"These budget reductions are a huge blow to Oregon's courts and the people we serve and will affect public safety, the welfare of children, and everyone who needs their day in court," De Muniz said in a press release. "Oregonians will have the unfortunate opportunity to learn how justice delayed means justice denied."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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