Thursday, March 25, 2010

Senate Judiciary Begins Work on Judicial Restructuring

What was planned as the initial walk through of H. 470 by legislative counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee turned out to be an action session as well as an information session. The Chair of the committee immediately objected to the provision in the House passed bill that requires probate judges to be lawyers. He went as far as to say that “it’s the most damning part of the bill and I will vote against the bill if that is in it”. He was not alone in that sentiment. There was objection to the court administrator being the person to hire the probate registers. The probate judge and the court administrator should consult and work together on selection of a register. That didn’t seem an impossible issue however. There was objection to removing the de novo appeal from probate to superior court. Two committee members objected to that language and the committee will hear testimony on that next week.
The committee took an immediate position on the role of assistant judges. They voted 4-0-1 to keep AJs doing what they do today BUT asking the counties to contribute to their salaries. But, two committee members want to talk about the small claims docket, having heard complaints about AJs and small claims cases. The provision that eliminates the dedicated number of staff to the E court drew the ire of two committee members.
There is language in the bill that extends the jurisdiction of magistrates to establishing parentage, PR&R and PCC. It also subjects magistrates to the retention process. Presently they are not retained as judges are. At the expiration of their 6 year terms, the governor either reappoints them or not. Then the Senate confirms the appointment. The Chair felt that subjecting them to retention reduces the power of the Senate. He asked legislative counsel to see that the language of their jurisdiction gets put in the appropriations bill (the “big” bill) because H. 470 is “not a must pass bill”.
After the morning break the court administrator Bob Greemore, took the witness chair and outlined the scenario of the next four years if restructuring does not happen. He handed out a spreadsheet showing the committee how the court would look if it had to absorb cuts of $1 million for the next four years. Services and staff would be cut drastically. I think some counties may eventually see services terminated. He described the current state of the judiciary including the loss of one furlough day a month as well as the time lost due to the weekly half day closings. Between the vacancies in judgeships as well as the closings the courts are losing almost 20% of their “judge-days”. The committee listened intently to his testimony and reacted less than it did earlier. There was a question about the redirection of the small claims filing fees to the state. The $700,000 in filing fees presently goes to the counties as the superior courts handle small claims. That money would go to the state to help offset the state’s taking over the county employees. The AJs have told the Chair that those fees are the “fee for space” for use of the county court buildings. That issue is left for another day.
The committee returned again to the probate court discussion, this time asking where the $853K savings will come from. Greenie told them that $410K is saved in probate judge salary while $440 comes from staff consolidation. There followed some general discussion about outside practices for the probate judges and the benefits package they receive. Some members felt there should be no outside practice while others thought that benefits should be prorated. Again, this is a discussion for another day.
Changing the subject, yesterday the Senate Judiciary committee voted out H. 461, the small estates bill earlier passed by the House. It expands the definition to include any individual who dies leaving no real estate and less than $10,000 in value of the estate. That should see quick Senate action next week and head to the governor for signature. The House is spending today and tomorrow on the floor in debate on four major “must pass” bills: the miscellaneous tax bill; the budget or “big bill”; the transportation bill; and the capital bill. All will take the two days and then next week, House committees will return to begin (continue) work on bills that came over from the Senate.
Thanks for reading.

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