ANNAPOLIS – The General Assembly’s auditing arm has recommended that lawmakers slash $21.2 million from the Maryland Judiciary’s $549 million budget request next fiscal year over the objections of Maryland’s top jurist.
The Department of Legislative Services’ suggested cuts include an $8.7 million reduction for the Judiciary’s travel, publications, building maintenance and postage and a $1.3 million cut for self-help centers for unrepresented litigants.
In a State of the Judiciary address Wednesday to a joint session of the General Assembly, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera called the self-help centers essential for ensuring access to justice for low-income Marylanders.
On Friday, Barbera told a Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee that the services involve expenses for the technology needed to provide them electronically.
“Life has changed,” Barbera said. “The Judiciary has harnessed technology.”
The chief judge also criticized DLS’ recommendation that the General Assembly accept only two of seven additional judgeships requested by the Judiciary. The two new judges approved by DLS would serve in district court in Baltimore County.
DLS’ proposed rejection of the other five judges would reduce the Judiciary’s budget request by about $1.5 million but would ill-serve litigants in four counties where new judges are needed, Barbera told the Public Safety, Transportation and Environment Subcommittee.
Barbera said the Judiciary had identified a need for 14 additional judges but chose to request just seven in recognition of budgetary constraints.
The five proposed judgeships that did not pass DLS review include one in Washington County Circuit Court, two in district court in Prince George’s County and one each in district court in Anne Arundel and St. Mary’s counties.
“These jurisdictions need the judges,” Barbera said, adding that she is concerned DLS has focused on the cost of adding jurists rather than on the Judiciary’s identified need for them.
The General Assembly historically has reviewed requests for additional judges as “a matter of policy,” Barbera told the subcommittee. By contrast, she said, DLS is treating the request “solely as a budgetary issue.”
Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey told the subcommittee that DLS’ recommended $1.3 million reduction to the Judiciary’s request for self-help centers would shortchange “a service that we provide directly to your constituents” who cannot afford an attorney.
“We see people representing themselves more and more and more each year,” Morrissey said.
The Judiciary, in a prepared statement to the subcommittee, added that it is willing to meet DLS more than halfway regarding the recommended $8.7 million cut in postage, building maintenance and related expenses. The Judiciary said it would accept a $4.6 million reduction but not more.
The Judiciary called DLS’ recommended $600,000 reduction in the Judiciary’s request for postage for Maryland’s district courts too high, saying such a cut would prevent the mailing of notices of case outcomes to litigants in landlord and tenant cases.
Defending its building-maintenance budget request, the Judiciary said that its courthouses are “subjected to tremendous wear and tear” from the more than 4 million visitors who visit them annually.
“Keeping up with maintenance projects ensures that courthouses do not fall into disrepair and reduces future expenses,” the Judiciary said.
Just hours after her address to the joint General Assembly session, Barbera on Wednesday defended the Judiciary’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Administration. The fiscal year begins July 1.