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Courts require adequate funds to do critical work

More than 50 years ago, Congress declared May 1 “Law Day” to remind Americans of the unique role of the rule of law in guaranteeing our democracy’s ideals of equality and justice.

And President George Washington once proclaimed, “The due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.”

We count on our courts to operate efficiently and effectively day in and day out.

The failures of the 2015 legislative session suggest it’s time for New Mexicans to consider new ways to ensure that our state court system has the funds needed to serve the public. New Mexico’s funding procedures subject our judiciary, which the framers of our Constitution envisioned as an independent and coequal branch of government, to politics.

Recent news reports have highlighted the financial squeeze facing New Mexico’s 48 magistrate courts because of the governor’s veto of $750,000 for operating costs through this June. Most of the shortage would have been absorbed if the governor in 2014 hadn’t also vetoed the continuance of a $4 court fee also approved by the Legislature.

This session, after the courts demonstrated they had been frugal with taxpayer money but could not address the funding deficiency, lawmakers approved a supplemental appropriation. However, Gov. Susana Martinez disagreed, which is her prerogative with New Mexico’s current system. But the veto means lease payments on court buildings and state insurance premiums must be delayed in the final weeks of the budget year to leave enough money for the core functions of courts in handling cases.

The State Board of Finance will consider the court’s request on May 19 for a $750,000 emergency grant, and it should approve these funds so the courts can continue serving the public and pay its bills.

No one questions the authority of the legislative branch to make the laws, the executive branch to carry out those laws, and the judicial branch to interpret the laws to safeguard our constitutional rights. Fundamentally, however, does it make sense that a co-equal branch of government would have to petition for approval for basic operational funds to the legislative branch and then face veto by the executive branch? Underfunding the judiciary undermines its constitutional responsibilities and challenges its ability to administer justice.

A truly independent judiciary shouldn’t face that possibility. It’s time our policymakers open a debate on how we can adequately fund the courts without politics jeopardizing the judiciary’s constitutional obligation to provide fair and timely justice. It’s time for New Mexico to consider procedures other states use to determine the state judiciary’s budget.

In West Virginia, the courts submit a proposed budget to the Legislature and the state’s Constitution prohibits it from being reduced by lawmakers or by a gubernatorial veto. Shouldn’t New Mexico have a system whereby 3 percent of the budget is made available for judicial operations with priorities determined internally through their very rigorous unified process? (Court funding for FY16 calls for modest increases over this year, and the judiciary represents about 2.6 percent of the overall state budget.)

As Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil said in her legislative address, “When the Judiciary is given the resources necessary to function efficiently, all of New Mexico will benefit.”

New Mexicans should assign a high priority to funding our courts sufficiently and appropriately because of the pivotal roles they play in addressing economic and social issues, ensuring fairness and uniformity in the administration of justice, safeguarding the welfare of the public, and protecting the liberties we cherish.