CHIEF JUSTICE STEELE'S REMARKS AT THE JUDICIARY'S PUBLIC BUDGET HEARING
On November 8, 2011, Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, along with representatives from all of the courts and the Judicial Branch agencies, presented the Judicial Branch's FY 2013 budget to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and others. The Chief Justice spoke of the impact of the current volatile economic climate on the budget process and stated that, because of fiscal concerns, the Judicial Branch limited its budget request for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2012 to only absolutely necessary expenses. He categorized the Judicial Branch's top two budget priorities for FY 2013 as "the funding needed to eliminate funding deficits for legally mandated Family Court contract attorneys who provide representation to indigent parents and children in dependency and neglect proceedings and the annualization costs for the new Superior Court judges and staff." He discussed that the additional Superior Court judges and staff were originally authorized in FY 2009 without full funding, due to the fiscal crisis, and that "delay in providing these resources to support Superior Court operations in New Castle County will seriously hamper New Castle County citizens' access to justice and will jeopardize our Court system's national reputation."
The Chief Justice lamented that, by acting as a strong fiscal partner with the other branches of government, the Judicial Branch's ability to provide constitutionally obligated services in a timely and effective manner is affected. He stated:
"Our courts' resource issues are not unique. Insufficient funding for courts across the country has become a national crisis. At a recent national symposium on the practical and constitutional impact of court underfunding, the current President of the American Bar Association, Bill Robinson, concluded that court underfunding is causing a "fundamental threat to our constitutional democracy."
The Chief Justice expressed his relief that court employees will receive a 2% increase beginning in January 2012; although he recognized that, even with that increase, compensation rates for court employees fall further and further behind inflation and benefit cost increases. He spoke about the similar erosion to judges' pay, which (when information and benefit increases are factored in) eroded by more than 14% since 2005 when the last Compensation Commission report was issued. As a result, Delaware judges' national standing based upon judicial compensation comparisons with other states has fallen.
The Chief Justice also provided an update on the initiative to establish a separate division within the Public Defender's office to administer the program for court-appointed attorneys providing representation to indigent criminal defendants in conflict situations. The new conflict program structure was implemented on November 1, 2011 and will provide great benefits to the justice system. The program centralizes conflict services under a single agency, allows for the coordination of service providers and eliminates potential ethical issues that arise when judges are involved in contracting with conflict attorneys and approving their fees and expenses in cases before them.
Chief Justice Steele mentioned that a continuing concern related to indigent services is the federal mandate contained in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, according to the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) communications, requires that state courts provide interpreter services to limited English proficiency parties in all civil, criminal and administrative proceedings conducted inside or outside the courtroom at no cost to the parties " without regard to the parties' ability to pay. This USDOJ initiative is causing concern among state courts and the Conference of Chief Justices who, without regard to motivation, find this a particularly difficult time to deal with yet another unfunded, and expensive, federal mandate. Chief Justice Steele expressed his appreciation of the support of the Office of Management and Budget, the Governor and the Legislature for the Kent County Court Complex construction project. He noted that, finally, members of the public in Kent County have joined those in other counties having access to a well-designed and secure courthouse for Superior Court, Court of Common Pleas and Court of Chancery operations. The final phase of that project " renovations to the historic Kent County Courthouse " is anticipated to be completed within the next year.
Chief Justice Steele also remarked about the physical overcrowding and security deficiencies in Family Court's Kent and Sussex County courthouses, which make construction projects for those courthouses high priorities, particularly given the potentially volatile nature of the proceedings that the Family Court hears. These projects would create centralized Family Justice Centers downstate, starting in Sussex County. The Chief Justice also highlighted a few recent Judicial Branch initiatives, as well as accolades, emphasizing the important role that the Courts play in enhancing system efficiencies and in attracting businesses to Delaware. Highlights included:
- Delaware was one of four jurisdictions nationwide awarded a racial and ethnic improvement project grant from the ABA. The Delaware team, led by Justice Ridgely and including Chief Judge Smalls, the Attorney General, Public Defender, and others, is focusing on enhancing racial and justice fairness in the criminal justice system. Delaware's efforts, through this initiative, were recognized at a racial justice improvement conference in Washington, D.C. held this fall.
- An attorney ad litem desk reference book was developed by the Court of Chancery and the Administrative Office of the Courts.
- The Superior Court established the first Diversionary Veterans' Treatment Court, which Resident Judge, and retired DEANG Colonel, Witham oversees, to serve veterans with mental illness involved in the court system.
- The Court of Common Pleas established a SPEED docket for expediting civil litigation, as well as new court procedures for managing consumer debt collection litigation.
- The Family Court's Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, program was honored to receive the 2011 Governor's Award for Outstanding Volunteer Organization.
- Family Court's revised website, creating an electronic resource center for self-represented litigants.
- The Justice of the Peace Court's Police Prosecution Project promises great success. Preliminary statistics show that the project has caused a 50% reduction in the number of traffic cases being transferred from the JP Court to the Court of Common Pleas. For example, statistics gathered by DELJIS indicate in the first quarter of this year that 8,400 fewer cases were transferred than in the same period last year. In addition, the Delaware State Police statistics show a correlating one-third drop in their in-court overtime since the Police Prosecution Project began.
The Chief Justice concluded with his acknowledgment of "the exceptional efforts and commitment of all of the Judicial Branch employees." He stated: "I marvel at their resilience and dedication in making sure that the job "gets done," while confronting exponentially increasing workloads and declining resources."