- Associated Press - Thursday, January 22, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico courts are heavily overburdened and need millions more in funding, the state’s top judge said Thursday.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil told legislators during the State of the Judiciary address that courts need nearly $172 million in funding this upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July.

That’s about a 9 percent increase in funding over last year.

“A strong court system improves the well-being and safety of everyone, particularly the poor and the downtrodden, and a judiciary that is able to resolve disputes in a timely manner attracts business investment and supports economic development,” Vigil said.

Trial court judges presided over almost 400,000 cases in the 2014 fiscal year alone, Vigil said.

Vigil said magistrate courts are most heavily in need of more funding. The magistrate court’s funding was cut last year when an operations fee and bond revenues fell through, creating a $1.2 million shortfall.

Magistrate courts hear preliminary hearings, misdemeanors, traffic violations and some civil disputes under $10,000. There are 49 magistrate courts around New Mexico with 67 judges.

The courts are also lacking in funding for court-appointed attorneys in family court, for jurors and for court interpreters, Vigil said. Included in the proposal was funding for courts to handle drug and drunken-driving cases.

Vigil said that despite cuts in funding, New Mexico courts have succeeded in using technology efficiently and in working with partner agencies to lower caseloads.

But there are many aspects of the courts that are lacking, including compensation for court employees. Vigil said the courts will consider making pay increases a priority next year.

House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, said Vigil raised a lot of issues. He is especially concerned about a growing number of defendants who choose to represent themselves in court with little training.

Tripp said the House “will always do all we can” but it’s hard to say whether the courts will get their increase in funding because members are awaiting new revenue estimates.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said it is essential that courts get sufficient funding.

“Given the increased demands on our courts and the inability for fees and fines to support their budget, more support from the general fund is clearly necessary,” Sanchez said.

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