Budget cuts could slow judicial process in Missouri

Sunday, February 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:08 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

No court on Fridays. Longer delays for pending cases. Even a "get out of jail free" card for those accused of nonviolent misdemeanors. All these practices have become solutions to the budget woes of state court systems around the country - and some of them might be coming soon to Missouri.

This was the message delivered Friday by Bill Corrigan, president of the Missouri Bar Association, at a breakfast meeting in Columbia. Since 2001, Corrigan said, the Missouri court system has endured $10 million in budget cuts. Meanwhile, traffic tickets aside, caseloads in Missouri courts have increased by 59 percent over the last 20 years. In 2003, courts heard 879,000 cases, involving 15.5 percent of the state's population.

Corrigan acknowledged that funding is tight across Missouri and lawmakers will be forced to cut deeper with this year's budget. However, he said, the state's judiciary has "no more fat to cut." Any less funding, he said, will surely spell job loss for court employees and slower judicial proceedings for average citizens.

Christine Carpenter, associate circuit judge in Boone County, said on any given day she handles about 250 cases. Approximately 10 other people - from court clerks to bailiffs - are needed "behind the scenes" to process a docket of that size, she said.

"These folks [clerks] are hardworking," said Gene Hamilton, Boone County circuit judge. "I don't see how we could do it without them."

Since 98 percent of the judiciary's budget goes toward salaries for court employees, however, further cuts could result in fewer hands to help push justice along.

"[Court] services have been there always, and [people] think they'll always be there," Hamilton said. "The average man on the street won't notice these cuts until it takes him 18 months to get a divorce, or until he gets his car stolen and the thief isn't prosecuted."

Missouri Supreme Court Judge Duane Benton said he's cautiously optimistic. Legislators who are lawyers, such as House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, and Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, could have a positive impact by stressing the judiciary's plight during upcoming budget talks, Benton said.

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