As Nebraska lawmakers struggle mightily to solve the state's budget crisis, one of the most serious issues is how to keep courts open across the state.
Lawmakers face a projected $986 million budget gap because of declining tax revenue as they craft a new, two-year state budget, and cuts across state government are expected to be deep.
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.
Fifty-eight county court judges serve the state's 93 counties. They hear domestic relations cases, juvenile cases (except in Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster counties), misdemeanors such as traffic violations, preliminary hearings in felony cases and civil cases involving less than $51,000, among other things.
Fifty-five district court judges oversee felony cases, domestic relations cases and civil cases, among other things.
Each county has a county and district court office, but some are staffed only part time because employees and judges move between counties.
The Judiciary Committee on Friday discussed a plan by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford to help get more out of the current court system so it can better serve the public.
His bill (LB451) would allow county court clerk magistrates to handle filings for a county district court if no one is available in that office.
The bill also would allow the district court clerk to do the same in county court.
"People and the public come to the courthouse to access court services, whether it's paying a traffic ticket or checking on child support or getting a copy of a probate pleading,'' said Janice Walker, state court administrator. "They don't care that the clerk of the district court works for the county and that the clerk magistrate works for the state. They just want to have access to court services. This bill would give the counties and the state the ability ... to work together to provide services at both levels of court."
The bill also would allow the appointment of attorneys as judicial hearing officers to act in place of a judge and hear misdemeanor cases involving things such as traffic violations, small claims cases and uncontested divorces.
Colfax County Judge Patrick McDermott, who chaired a Supreme Court committee that looked at how to make the courts more efficient, spoke in support of using lawyers as judicial hearing officers.
"It's like a toolbox," he said. "And what we are looking to put in that toolbox are very flexible tools."
Another idea to deal with the court budget crunch has been introduced by Omaha Sen. Brenda Council. Her bill (LB251) would 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 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.
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.
Gov. Dave Heineman said earlier he is opposed to increasing taxes and fees to dig the state out of its budget hole.