SANTA FE – New Mexico jury trials will not have to be halted – at least for now – after the state Board of Finance signed off Wednesday on giving up to $600,000 to the cash-strapped court system to pay jurors.
The seven-member board also approved a smaller amount, $82,614, to avoid planned employee furloughs at the state Supreme Court. The first furlough day would have been March 10.
Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura told board members that judges statewide were poised to begin canceling jury trials, starting March 1, if emergency funding was not pledged Wednesday.
“I can’t let juries sit there without pay when it affects trials,” Nakamura said.
She also said that if jury trials were to be canceled, defense lawyers would likely have sought to have cases dismissed under a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.
The money for both the jury fund and the Supreme Court will come out of an emergency pool of money set aside by lawmakers during a special session last fall. The courts will have to repay the money if a separate funding measure is signed into law in the coming weeks.
Gov. Susana Martinez, who is chairwoman of the board and appoints most of its members, cautioned that emergency funding would be a temporary solution for the courts.
The emergency funding is expected to keep jury trials going through mid-April. Additional funding would then have to be provided in the annual state budget bill to keep jury trials going through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“This is not the way to fix, or permanently fix, a budget crisis that is none of our fault,” Martinez said.
The two-term GOP governor, a former prosecutor, has already vetoed two court funding proposals approved by lawmakers during this year’s 60-day session. In doing so, she has criticized the Democrat-controlled Legislature for not examining ways to reduce court spending.
Top Democrats have fired back, accusing the governor of trying to starve the court system.
In a statement Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, called the Board of Finance’s emergency funding approval a “Band-Aid” approach.
“Twice the Legislature acted in a bipartisan manner to bring responsible solutions to the crisis facing our courts,” Smith said. “What Gov. Martinez and the Board of Finance did (Wednesday) was once again kick the courts’ woes down the road.”
That prompted a retort later in the day from Martinez, who said the two proposals she vetoed were “flawed” attempts to fund the courts.
She also claimed the funding levels approved Wednesday by the Board of Finance would save taxpayer dollars, although jury pay levels remain unchanged.
Meanwhile, several Board of Finance members noted during Wednesday’s meeting that state court officials have made repeated requests for emergency funds in recent years.
At one point, board member Robert Aragon, who ran unsuccessfully for state auditor in 2014, described the chronic funding pleas as a “crisis created by a lack of proper administration” in the court’s central administrative office.
However, Nakamura, a Republican who is in line to become Supreme Court chief justice this year, said she believes expenditures from the courts’ jury fund have been proper.
On average, about 5,000 jurors serve in various New Mexico courts per month, according to judicial branch data.
Of the roughly $8.6 million in projected fund expenditures for the current budget year, nearly 90 percent is being spent on compensating jurors, witnesses and court interpreters, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. That includes expenses for jury summonses and parking, which came under scrutiny Wednesday.
The jury fund is projected to have a $1.6 million shortfall, partly because some of this year’s funding had to be used to pay jurors who served during the past fiscal year.
Exacerbating the crunch, the court system, like other state agencies, had its budget cut in last fall’s special session. In anticipation of the cuts, the Administrative Office of the Courts reduced both juror pay and mileage reimbursement rates. Jurors currently get $6.25 an hour, down from the previous $6.75.
In all, the judicial branch’s total budget makes up a little less than 3 percent of total state spending.