New Mexico Court Crisis Averted, for Now

SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) — Facing a possible shutdown of jury trials, the New Mexico State Board of Finance voted Wednesday to give nearly $700,000 from emergency funds to the state’s embattled court system.

The courts had warned that without the money, they could not afford to hold jury trials.

State Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura laid out the problem for the board, saying bluntly: “I’m not here to add to the drama or make sound bites, just tell you what is needed.”

Gov. Susana Martinez and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez both attended the special meeting in the governor’s cabinet room.

New Mexico’s court system has been underfunded for years, Nakamura said, cutting spending wherever possible and borrowing against future appropriations to make up shortfalls. With the Legislature in session but no budget published, the court system has no way to cover a shortfall projected at $1.6 million for the rest of the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

The justice laid out the numbers for the board: that the state supreme court’s $3.3 million budget had been nearly $100,000 short from the outset, before the Legislature cut another 3 percent from it in a special session in October.

Nakamura told the board that judicial employees are delaying or avoiding submitting mileage reports because they know the court would struggle to pay them. She herself, Nakamura said, had bought supplies at Staples to keep the offices running.

“Everyone in the court is cognizant of the problem,” she told the board. “Everyone is trying to help.”

The board voted to approve the $82,000 requested by the supreme court to keep the offices open and avoid employee furloughs. Then they turned to the $600,000 requested for the Jury and Witness Fee Fund. Without that money, Nakamura said, the state would no longer be able to schedule jury trials, starting March 1.

Board member Robert J. Aragon expressed concern with the way that the cessation of jury trials is perceived. He cited legislative leaders who had said: “‘Inaction will lead to bad guys walking the streets.’ That’s a very provocative statement, because it has the possibility to incite. Not necessarily to incite action, but to incite fear,” Aragon said.

Nakamura assured the board that “judges aren’t just going to open up the jails.”

But she warned that by rescheduling and pushing back jury trials, the state could be accused of violating the right to a speedy trial.

The board approved the $600,000 for the Jury and Witness Fee Fund — but called it and the $82,000 for the supreme court a loan, should the Legislature pass bills to supply the money. If not, the money will become a grant from the state.

The board encouraged Nakamura to keep working with the Legislature on appropriations that will pay the courts’ bills without going into the red.

“It is the constitutional responsibility of the Legislature to fund the courts,” Lt. Gov. Sanchez said.