- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court warned lawmakers Thursday that the state’s budget crisis threatens to undercut constitutional guarantees to a speedy trial, funding for juries, access to court records and other basic services.

In an address to a joint session of the Legislature, Chief Justice Charles Daniels described a judiciary “on life support” and said emergency funding is needed in the coming months for state courts to meet statutory obligations to compensate jurors and witnesses.

“We’re not providing the functioning justice system now, we simply can’t,” Daniels said in his State of the Judiciary address given every two years. “Basically citizens are being denied timely access to their justice system. It has a real impact on families and businesses and people in all walks of life.”

Funding to the judiciary was cut 3 percent in October as lawmakers struggled to fill a budget hole linked to a downturn in energy markets and a corresponding drop in state revenue. Gov. Susana Martinez wants this year’s judiciary funding cuts to remain in place next fiscal year that begins on July 1, while the Legislature has outlined a 1 percent increase.

The Administrative Office of the Courts has said it will run out of money in early March to compensate jurors and witnesses without an infusion of funds. Daniels said that could mean canceling jury trials. He linked funding difficulties to court delays, saying that “we’re seeing increased motions to dismiss for lack of a speedy trial.”

The governor has voiced support for statutory changes to do away compensation to jurors, who currently receive about $50 a day.

At the same time, county clerks have cut back on hours they devote to helping the public in three of the state’s 13 judicial districts. And the judiciary is saving money by paying a lower mileage reimbursement rate for travel by judges, court staff, jurors, interpreters and court-ordered witnesses.

Separately, the independent Office of the Public Defender is declining to represent poor defendants in hundreds of cases in southeastern New Mexico, reasoning that its attorneys are stretched too thin to provide an adequate defense.

That problem appears to be influencing outcomes in court, Daniels said.

“We’re seeing increased claims in our courts to dismiss cases, or set aside convictions, for lack of effective assistance and counsel.”

Daniels said that less money is being spent on court-appointed attorneys in child abuse and neglect cases to guarantee that funding does not run out before the end of the year.

“What that does is keeps children in foster care longer periods of time, it imposes greater costs on” the Children, Youth and Families Department, he said.

The chief justice also objected to politicized calls for further belt-tightening in state government - a phrase recently invoked by the governor as she vowed to oppose new taxes.

And he contrasted spending by the executive branch with the courts - noting that the judiciary has a lower travel reimbursement rate and no budget for entertainment or diplomatic visits. The governor controls a contingency fund for social events that receives up to $72,000 a year.

“We don’t have any entertainment budget, we don’t spend any money on employee parties,” he said. “When we have a Christmas get-together at the Supreme Court, it’s a potluck.”

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