NM Governor Rejects Fiscal Lifeline for State Courts

SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) – New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez used her line-item veto authority this past week to deny $800,000 in emergency funds requested by the state court system, and the courts now say they’ll have to halt jury trials by March 1 because they can no longer pay jurors.

The state’s courts are short $1.6 million in funding through the end of the fiscal year, which ends in June. Without those funds, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels warned that jury trials will be delayed or canceled, criminal cases may have to be dismissed because the state cannot provide a speedy trial, and employee furloughs will further slow down the wheels of justice.

In his State of the Judiciary Address this past month, Daniels focused keenly on the courts’ budget crisis, stating bluntly that “New Mexico’s justice system is failing for lack of necessary funding,” and that “our justice system is now on life support, and its organs are shutting down.”

Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan issued a written statement Saturday accusing lawmakers of failing to adequately scrutinize court spending. “We are in a budget crisis,” Martinez wrote. “We have to make sure every dollar is accounted for – it’s what New Mexicans expect their leaders to do.”

But Daniels and others claim “tighten the belt” strategies have been in place for years, and that without an increased budget, the courts cannot function.

Martinez has called a special meeting Wednesday of the state Board of Finance to consider the emergency funding requests. The meeting will consider a proposal to add $600,000 to the fund that pays jurors, and up to $82,000 for other costs.

An infusion of $600,000 should be enough to keep the courts running through mid-April, according to the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.