Facing the specter of possibly closing courts across the state, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican pleaded his case Thursday for sparing the judiciary from deep budget cuts as lawmakers wrestle with a $986 million budget shortfall.
"The courts are not just another agency line-item in the state's budget. Our courts are a constitutional branch of government, co-equal with the legislative branch and the executive branch," Heavican said in his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature.
"Our employees and our judges are mindful of the difficult budget situation that our state is in. They are also mindful of the sacrifices that all Nebraskans are making to support state government."
Last year, the Legislature asked all state offices and agencies to study how a 10 percent budget cut would affect them.
Possible cuts discussed during an interim hearing before the Judiciary Committee included closing county court clerks' offices in the state's 30 least populated counties and reducing county court staff in another 32.
Heavican said more than 95 percent of the judicial system's general fund budget goes to personnel.
"Any cut in the court's budget, whether it is 10 percent or 5 percent or 1 percent, means operating with fewer employees," Heavican said. "Only a tiny fraction of the Supreme Court's over 1,000 employees and 144 judges can be found in this building.
"Judges, county court clerks' office employees and probation officers are found in the courtrooms, county court clerks' offices and our county probation offices in all of Nebraska's 93 counties," he said. "While some employees are only part-time, they are in every courthouse, in every county, and in every legislative district in this state."
The judicial branch, which also oversees the state's probation system, has a general fund budget of about $70 million a year. Court fees generate roughly $14 million a year for it.
Omaha Sen. Brenda Council has introduced legislation (LB251) to increase filing fees by $20 -- for all cases ranging from Small Claims Court to the state Supreme Court -- to bring in about $8 million a year.
The fee for filing a Small Claims Court action, for example, would go from $6.25 to $26.25, an increase of 320 percent.
For civil cases in county court, the fee would double, to $40.
Fees for cases filed with the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court would go from $100 to $120, an increase of 20 percent.
But Gov. Dave Heineman said earlier that he is opposed to increasing taxes and fees to dig the state out of its budget hole.
Heavican said the court system has worked hard to find efficiencies and streamline, particularly through the increased use of technology.
"Although the technology we use in the court system is paid by user fees, the court's general fund expenditures are primarily used for salaries and benefits for court employees," he said. "I believe strongly that if we ask for the state's tax money we should spend it wisely -- both now and in the future."
Heavican said that no judges or court employees will receive a cost-of-living increase next year. He said the court system will continue to not fill or delay filling vacancies.
"Depending on the extent of cuts in our budget, furloughs are likely," he said.
"Courts perform the constitutionally mandated role of providing access to justice for all Nebraska citizens," he said. "It is a critical role -- critical to, among others, our state's elderly and our state's abused and neglected children. No branch of this government is working harder to become more efficient. No branch of this government is working harder to implement technology, and no branch of this government is being more innovative in planning for the future."