Supreme Court won’t be furloughing workers this quarter |

Supreme Court won’t be furloughing workers this quarter

Staff Reports

The Nevada Supreme Court declared it won’t be furloughing any workers in an order issued Thursday.

Saying they’ve already declined to furlough employees during the first quarter of fiscal year 2010, justices concluded that budget cuts and reversions of funds made furloughs unnecessary.

Thursday’s order reached the same conclusion for the second quarter of the year, which ends Dec. 31, 2009. The Supreme Court will review the issue quarterly during public hearings “out of respect for a co-equal branch of Nevada’s government.”

The order appears on the Supreme Court’s Web site, under “Administrative Orders.”

Senate Bill 433, passed by the 2009 Legislature calls for unpaid furloughs of state employees.

Chief Justice James W. Hardesty said that during the 2009 Legislative session, the Supreme Court reduced its budget by the 4.6 percent that the furloughs would save, specifically to avoid having to temporarily reduce staffing levels.

“Since the court’s revenue is thus far sufficient to meet expenses without requiring furloughs of Judicial Branch employees, we determine that furloughs for the second quarter of the fiscal year are not necessary to permit this court to conform its spending to its appropriation,” the seven justices concluded.

The order notes that during the legislative session, the Judicial Branch budget was reduced and modifications to programs were subsequently made to provide the budget savings sought without requiring furloughs.

“If the court were to furlough our staff now, we would be doubling the savings intended by the Legislature,” Chief Justice James W. Hardesty said, emphasizing that the court is not attempting to circumvent the provisions of the legislation.

“We believe that the Judiciary is a responsible government citizen and careful steward of the public’s funds,” Chief Justice Hardesty said.

“If anything, it appears that this court will likely revert monies to the General Fund at the end of fiscal year 2010,” the order stated.

The order states that “in fiscal year 2009, the Governor requested that all state government entities revert 7.9 percent to the General Fund. The Judicial Branch reverted $2.5 million, more than three times the percentage sought.”

In fiscal year 2008, the Governor requested that all state government entities revert 4.5 percent of previously allocated funds. The Supreme Court returned nearly $2 million, or 27 percent of its targeted General Fund appropriation.

Thursday’s order declining furloughs followed a Nov. 3 public hearing, “which was open to the public to assure transparency.”

Testimony was provided during that hearing by Deanna Bjork, the court’s Manager of Budgets; Ron Titus, State Court Administrator; and Tracie Lindeman, Clerk of the Court.

“Having considered the testimony presented at that hearing, we conclude that furloughs of Judicial Branch employees are not necessary at this time,”

The Supreme Court, however, directed department heads to formulate a furlough plan, including closing the court one day a month for all but critical functions, should furloughs become necessary at some point.

Testimony at the Nov. 3 hearing indicated that completely closing the court one day a month would not be possible because of the constitutional and statutory duties to issue emergency writs and orders.

Lindeman pointed out during her testimony that other courts in Nevada would not be closed, but stated that a skeleton staff of three employees in the clerk’s office, likely could handle the necessary work.

Titus testified that the Administrative Office of the Courts provides technical computer support for other courts throughout Nevada and some staff would have to be available to address any issues that might arise on a Supreme Court furlough day.

The state general fund pays for less than half (of the Supreme Court’s total budget and only a fraction of the actual operating costs. Most General Fund dollars go to pay the salaries of District Court Judges and Supreme Court Justices, which are set in statute by the Legislature and cannot be reduced under the Constitution.

Most court operating costs are funded from administrative assessments collected by the courts on misdemeanor and traffic convictions. The state’s contribution to the Judicial Branch is less than 0.74 percent of the entire General Fund budget.

In the court’s July 2009 order initially declining furloughs, the justices cautioned that including the Court in the furlough process would be “disastrous” to the Court’s Constitutional responsibility to decide legal disputes appropriately and fairly, and in a timely fashion.

“The Supreme Court’s caseload is already one of the highest in the nation and the legal issues we have been asked to resolve have been growing more complex every year,” Chief Justice Hardesty said at the time.

As a result, the gap between cases filed and dispositions has been widening and the time to disposition has been growing.

“Furloughs would hasten this trend and in a very short time this court could easily return to the situation prevalent in the 1990s, when cases remained on appeal for years before a decision could be rendered,” the order noted.

“This court’s decision making cannot be further delayed absent clear evidence that furloughs are necessary to avoid exceeding the appropriation to this court,” the July order continued.