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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Court Administrator: Proposed Judicial Branch Cuts Unsustainable

Montana Capitol, Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol.

As the state faces a budget shortfall, lawmakers in Helena are asking departments across the state to trim their spending. But the judicial branch says its caseloads are increasing, and it needs more funds.

Between 2014 and 2015 the number of cases of child abuse and neglect in district courts rose by 700, according to testimony from court representatives.

The governor's proposed budget calls for keeping spending on state courts basically flat.

In legislative budget hearings this week, a Republican lead group of lawmakers called for cutting the state's judicial branch by more than $4.5 million over the next two years.

Those cuts could require a change in state law redefining the duties of the judicial branch, restrict how district court judges can travel, and remove advocate services for kids in the court system.

That’s according to Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin. At a joint House-Senate budget hearing Tuesday morning, McLaughlin called the proposed budget cuts unsustainable.

"And by saying that that is where we would have to cut, I want to be very clear that cutting CASA programs would be incredibly damaging to kids," McLaughlin said.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA works on behalf of kids in cases of child abuse and neglect, and helps guide kids through the legal system. McLaughlin says some CASA funding is currently on the chopping block.

Federal law requires kids in child abuse and neglect to have a CASA advocate or a guardian ad litem. If Montana isn’t able to provide advocates, it puts federal funding that supports those services at risk.

"This is not a cut that we would take lightly," McLaughlin says. "I think it would be, beyond financially damaging, really damaging to kids who are at risk."

Montana’s Department of Health and Human Services said last fiscal year it received over $22 million from the federal government to support statewide foster care, in part because Montana funds efforts to help kids through the state court system.

A Department spokesman said it’s not immediately clear how much of that federal funding could be at risk, if guardian ad litem services are cut.

Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin:

"We’re not a branch, nor do I think any branches are, that just spend money to spend money at the end of the year. If we have funds remaining we will revert them. But this is not a sustainable cut given the statutory requirements we have to reimburse certain expenses."

In the opening days of the legislative session, lawmakers asked all branches of state government to offer up funds they could work without.

McLaughlin says the judicial branch offered to give up just over a $1 million, hoping lawmakers would eventually see the need to fund services within the judicial system.

"Statewide we could use an additional 20 judges," says Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath. He also testified during Tuesday’s appropriations hearing.

McGrath cited a study released during the legislative interim, stating there weren’t enough judges in Montana to meet case workload demands.

That study said the state would need to hire 21 more judges, to meet the need of incoming cases, costing an estimated $10 million.

McGrath, and other judicial branch employees, know that kind of financial ask isn't going to happen. So, Chief Justice McGrath says they’re asking for 5 new judges for the counties in most need:

"I think it is important to think about what it is that we do. What we do in the judicial branch is we resolve disputes, we settle conflict."

And he says when there aren’t enough judges, it creates a backlog of cases making it harder for people to get their day in court.

If approved by the legislature, the new judges would be placed in Yellowstone, Missoula, Mineral, Cascade, and Flathead counties, over the next three years.

When lawmakers asked judicial branch staff if the timeline for adding the judges could be changed, Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin said yes, but she added that Yellowstone county is in need of judges in the next year.

Ed Bartlett, representing the Montana Judges Association,the state bar, Yellowstone County and the Billings Chamber of Commerce, testified in support of the bill.

Bartlett says with the tight budget this session, it might take some convincing for lawmakers to fund new judges:

"It’s gonna to take all of you, and all of us that are speaking on behalf of this to get your colleagues to support this. Five sounds like a lot."

But, Bartlett says, counties in Montana need help lifting their legal caseloads, and that can’t be done without more judges. 

The Montana Chamber of Commerce also supports the proposal for new judges.

A bill introduced last week in the Montana House would sign off on the ask for 5 new district judges.

A vote on that bill hasn’t been scheduled yet.

On Thursday, members of the joint appropriation subcommittee will vote on the budget for the judicial branch, deciding what stays and what goes. It will then be up to the House to figure out how to fit judicial branch funding into the overall state budget bill.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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