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Barbera compromises on Md. Judiciary’s budget, but not security, service

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera (File photo)

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera voiced her willingness Wednesday to cut $6.5 million from the Judiciary’s proposed $576.4 million budget for fiscal year 2018 – but not at the expense of cybersecurity, courtroom safety or the quality of service provided by circuit court clerk’s offices.

Maryland’s courthouses must provide “a safe and welcoming environment for everybody,” Barbera told a House Appropriations panel reviewing the Judiciary’s request for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Barbera’s comments came in response to a recommendation from legislative analysts that the General Assembly slash the Judiciary’s proposed budget by $21 million.

Specifically, the Department of Legislative Services called on lawmakers to reject the Judiciary’s request for $6.3 million in merit salary increases and $6 million in additional funding for clerk’s offices, including 20 new positions – recommended cuts that Barbera rejected in total.

Such cuts would undermine the Judiciary’s central mission of “promising that the access to justice is kept for all,” Barbera said.

The chief judge just also assailed the analysts’ rejection of the Judiciary’s call for 5.5 new positions in its information systems office, saying at least five of the requested positions must be provided to help the court system combat cyber threats.

Barbera cited a legislative auditors’ report last year that the judicial system’s computer system was vulnerable to cyber attack.

“Every day we hear in the news stories about hacking,” Barbera said.

She was joined before the subcommittee by Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey and State Court Administrator Pamela Q. Harris, who addressed the need for increased security in the state’s courtrooms and better equipment and increased personnel in clerk’s offices.

Morrissey defended the Judiciary’s call for 13 more district court bailiffs over DLS’s objection, citing instances of courtroom violence nationwide. However, he compromised on the department’s recommended $1 million cut in supplies and office furniture, saying $250,000 was definitely needed by the Judiciary to pay for security systems, such as metal detectors.

“The threat is very real,” Morrissey said. “The risks are present and they’re growing.”

Harris told the subcommittee that additional personnel and equipment are needed in clerk’s offices, which face unique and unanticipated challenges every year. She cited a power outage at a data collection center last year.

“Our clerks work every day, diligently, for the people of Maryland,” Harris said. “The Judiciary cannot anticipate every situation that arises that needs a solution, sometimes an immediate solution.”

The trio did not object to the department’s recommendation that the Judiciary not receive $225,000 in fiscal 2018 for travel expenses or $454,102 for inflationary increases in the district court. Morrissey also agreed with the department’s call for a $1.5 million reduction in the Judiciary’s $10 million request for its Appointed Attorneys Program, which provides lawyers at initial bail hearings.

The Judiciary has annually spent about $8.5 million on the program, Morrissey said.

The Judiciary’s budget has increased markedly during the past several years from $450.6 million in fiscal 2014, to $500.2 in 2015, $507 million in fiscal 2016 and $546.8 this fiscal year.

The Judiciary’s fiscal 2018 budget would be $569.9 million, if lawmakers adopt Barbera’s request, or $555.4 million if they side with DLS.

Barbera, Morrissey and Harris are scheduled to defend the Judiciary’s budget request again Thursday before the Senate Budget & Taxation Subcommittee on Public Safety, Transportation, and Environment.

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