Committee hears testimony on Judicial Branch cuts

The state’s Judicial Branch either is at risk of losing its independence due to crippling budget cuts, or wants to be handled with fiscal kid gloves, depending on who was offering testimony Friday before a state legislative panel.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s budget director urged the Judiciary Committee to reject a measure that would restore most of a $7.8 million cut and would restrict the governor’s authority to order emergency reductions.

“It puts the Judicial Branch on an enhanced playing field,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Robert L. Genuario said, adding that in tough fiscal times, shielding one group will affect others. “It will follow like the night follows the day that the burden is going to fall more on the Executive Branch.”

The two-year budget adopted by the legislature and allowed to become law by Rell last September reduced funding in the “other expenses” line item – an account typically used to pay for service contracts and small equipment purchases – for the Judicial Branch, and for all nearly all executive branch agencies, to 2006-07 levels. The legislature tried to reverse that cut for the Judicial Branch only in a budget policy bill adopted in special session shortly thereafter, but the governor vetoed it.

That $7.8 million reduction, coupled with another $5 million cut to court funding included in the latest budget, led Judicial Branch in October officials to announce plans to close courthouses in Windham, Bristol and Norwalk later this year.

Judge Barbara M. Quinn, the chief court administrator also warned that family support centers, domestic violence support services, law libraries and legal research programs also are in jeopardy because of the cuts.

The latest bill before the committee would restore $6.1 million of the $7.8 million cut from the other expenses line item, an amount both court and administration officials said would be enough to reverse reductions to many court support services for the final four months of this fiscal year, which ends June 30. It was unclear Friday, though, whether those additional funds would be sufficient to stave off any courthouse closures.

The bill also would prohibit the governor from ordering emergency cuts to the Judicial Branch budget without Judiciary Committee approval. Current law allows the administration to reduce many department and agency budgets, including the Judicial Branch’s, by up to 5 percent, without legislative approval, in times of fiscal crisis.

“The ultimate question for you as a legislature is this: What kind of judicial branch do you want to have in Connecticut?” Quinn testified Friday before the committee.

“It is disheartening and frustrating to see an ever-widening gap between the programmatic responsibilities and mandates given to the Judicial Branch by the legislature and the funds that ultimately are available to meet those critical and central duties,” she added.

Committee leaders from both sides of the aisle agreed Friday with Quinn.

Though Executive Branch agencies perform vital functions, most are not required by the state Constitution as the core court functions are, Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the panel, said. “The Judicial Branch is different, and I think that changes the analysis,” he added.

Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, ranking Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee, said it’s important to insulate the courts from the fierce political budget arena. “We have a very deferential and genteel Judicial Branch, and they don’t really come across the street to the Capitol to play politics,” he said. “Their independence seems to have been gently eroded.”