After scrambling to prepare for a long spate of Friday court closures, local officials expressed relief over a legislative deal that will restore all but one of the days.
Ways and Means co-chairs Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Chief Justice Paul De Muniz announced late Thursday an agreement to shift $1.7 million from the general fund to keep Oregon courts open.
The financial reshuffling means the courts will be closed only one day, which was Friday, instead of the 16 days that were planned. Court employees, however, still will have to take six unpaid furlough days, which will be rotated to keep the courts staffed.
"I am grateful for the ongoing efforts of legislative leaders to limit the impact of budget cuts on Oregon courts and the people served by them," said De Muniz. "This decision could not have come at a better time."
Mark Schiveley, presiding judge of the Jackson County Circuit Court, said he and the other judges, along with key officials at the court, had been scrambling to determine how to handle court cases with 20 percent less time. De Muniz had ordered all state courts to be closed on Fridays beginning this week.
"Nobody wanted to be closed on Fridays," said Schiveley. "When the dust settles, this will be better than what we were trying to figure out."
Personnel costs make up about 95 percent of the court's budget.
To meet the planned cut, officials scheduled 16 furlough days for the 82 local court employees, Schiveley said.
The court staff — except judges — still must take six furlough days over the next 31/2 months, said Schiveley. Judges may not have their salaries reduced by a sitting Legislature, a state constitutional protection intended to fend off political pressure on the courts.
"Now we can spread it out some," Schiveley said of the lost staff time. "This is not pleasant. But it's not nearly as draconian as what we've been planning. We will still be challenged to provide the same sort of services the public has become accustomed to."
Buckley and Carter both warned that deeper budget cuts for the next biennium could force Oregon into the same situation.
In exchange for eliminating the closure days, the Judicial Department agreed to submit a detailed plan by March 20 on reaching specific budget reductions and to report to the Ways and Means Committee by April 1.
Jackson County Circuit Court would have lost more than one-third of its current available trial dates if the Fridays had been cut, said Jim Adams, court administrator. Adams said the courts were preparing to "triage" cases. Those involving children (custody, dependency, termination of parental rights, juvenile justice cases) and public safety would have taken priority. Civil and corporate litigation would have been "placed on the back burner," he said.
The backlogging of cases by the closures also could have affected a defendant's right to a speedy trial and a litigant's opportunity to be heard in court in a timely manner. As the economy continues to decline, the burdens on the court would have only increased, Adams said.
Budget deficits required that temporary closures be taken for four months in 2003.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.