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Chief justice: Courts need increased funding

Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE — As the burden on Idaho’s court system increases, so does its financial needs, Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald F. Schroeder told lawmakers Monday night during his State of the Judiciary address.

“In these difficult budget times and in the face of increased caseloads and social problems, judges have stepped up to tackle the most difficult problems with vigor and purpose,” Schroeder said. “And they are anxious to do the job. They ask for the tools to do the job.”

State courts are under heavy pressure and need increased funding, he said. Idaho’s 39 district judges alone processed 22,000 cases last year, Schroeder said.

“These are the showcases to the public of our system — the spotlight courts that make nightly news when a decision as to life or death, freedom or imprisonment must be made,” Schroeder said. “A district judge may be required to spend three, four or more weeks in a single case and then try to figure out how to process the other 550 to 600 cases on his or her calendar.”

Not including infractions, magistrate judges handled a quarter million cases last year. The three-judge Court of Appeals processed 552 appeals.

Though an additional six full-time judges could have eased the burden, Schroeder said, the courts have not asked for additional appointments in the past seven years. Instead, retired judges have stepped in to help, saving taxpayers money, he said.

“In the financial times that exist you will be relieved to hear that we are not requesting any new judgeships this year,” he said. “We seek a modest increase in the funding of this system which will allow the prompt flow of cases at considerable savings over the funding of new positions that would otherwise be necessary.”

An increased budget would simply cover “rock-bottom need,” Schroeder said.

More money is needed to hire trained interpreters who can handle the diverse language demands facing modern courts, he said.

“The days of having under-trained interpreters who would listen to a witness for five minutes and then report a single answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ following this extended dialogue must go,” Schroeder said. “Constitutional due process requires more. More fundamentally, we must meet this challenge because it is right. No one must be a stranger in the hall of justice, bewildered by the most fundamental need — an understandable language.”

He also called on lawmakers to increase user fees for the state’s computerized court record system to help expand the system to other criminal justice agencies and pay for improvements allowing the public to make court payments online.

And the chief justice reminded legislators of the strides the court system has made in recent years.

The creation of drug courts has proven successful, he said, leading to the creation of special juvenile courts. Now judges are turning their eyes to a new goal — mental health courts.

“Again, the judges are volunteering their time beyond their other caseload with no reward except for improving the communities in which they live,” he said.

Schroeder recounted the response of one woman who went through such a court in Idaho Falls.

“They were my miracle,” Schroeder said the woman said of the mental court judge and workers. “Now I’m their miracle.”

In the coming year, courts will likely have more to do battling Idaho’s increasing gang problem, Schroeder said.

“We also recognize that gang violence and the existence of gangs operating within the fabric of our society are issues that must be dealt with in a global fashion,” he said. “No single element of society can cure the problems that gangs create. Again, we will cooperate with whatever expertise we can lend to the problem.”

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