Laehn responds to threat to close courthouses

Suggested criteria is “dumb”

An open letter that was widely circulated late last week threatening to close county courthouses is “alarming” but “either very poorly worded or very intentionally worded to cause alarm across the state,” according to assistant county attorney Thomas Laehn.

He shared the letter from state court administrator Todd Nuccio with the county supervisors Monday.

The letter concerns a proposed budget cut of $4.8 million to the state judicial branch budget in the current fiscal year. Total budget cuts of $50 million are being recommended. According to Nuccio’s letter, 2.5 percent of the state’s total general fund budget goes to the judicial branch, but 9 percent of the proposed cut is aimed at it.

Nuccio wrote that if the cut is made, the judicial branch would close more than 30 courthouses across the state.

Laehn first pointed out that the judicial branch can’t close courthouses, but only judicial offices and courtrooms. “But, I think this is a serious threat. I think this is a real possibility,” he said. “I would not be surprised at all if our courthouse were one that is slated to have its judicial offices closed.”

Closing judicial offices would save the state money on personnel costs, but the cost would be transferred to citizens and to counties. Residents and the county attorneys’ staff would need to travel to other counties to conduct court business. The burden on sheriffs’ offices of transporting persons being held to and from court appearances would increase with the greater distances.

Closing courtrooms has been discussed other times in recent years. Board chair John Muir said Judge Bill Ostlund has made suggestions “to stay on top of things with the courtroom… to enhance ourselves to not be one of those 30,” Muir said.

Determining which courtrooms would be closed would be based only on the number of cases handled. ”For me, that’s a very dumb criteria,” Laehn said. “It’s dumb. Why not look at the availability of courtroom space, whether or not the building in which the courtroom is located has a lifespan of 100 years or 10 years, which one needs to be renovated, which one has security, which one is geographically centered where it can service another county? There are so many other criteria beyond the volume of cases that would make this a sound process.”

Laehn also explained that Greene County is allowed to have only 11 criminal trials per year. That’s due to a limited number of judges and court reporters. The limited number of trials allowed each year is a factor in negotiating plea agreements. Consolidating judicial offices could make that number even lower.

The de-appropriation has already been approved under State Senate Bill 3089. The House has yet to act on it. Muir said the board would consider a respond to the proposal to court administrator Nuccio and to Rep Baltimore.

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