In a meeting with the Michigan Chronicle Editorial Board, Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Virgil Smith vehemently disputed allegations made by Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano that the biggest offender in driving up the budget deficit over the years has been the courts.
“When John Engler passed legislation for court reorganization, he, in essence, pressed the obligation of the courts down on the local municipalities,” Ficano said, adding that Wayne County funds the biggest court system in the state — the 3rd Circuit Court, with 63 judges.
“We have to pay for all of that,” he said.
Ficano likened it to a neighbor spending with your credit card, even when you ask them not to. He said this year alone the courts are $24 million over budget.
Smith said local units of government have always had responsibility for the operations of the courts. Circuit courts were paid for by the counties they’re in or by the collection of counties that made up that circuit, and local courts were paid for by townships, cities or villages in which they were in operation.
That changed in the early 1980s when, as a state representative, Smith joined with then chief judge Mary Coleman and began to push for state funding of the courts. Engler was elected governor in 1990.
He said they were able to pass a series of bills that established a state-funded court system, and set a timetable for the state to begin to take over the cost of operating the courts.
Smith said that in the 1980 legislation, establishing a state-funded court system, the first phase of that state funding was to assume the costs of the courts in Wayne County.
After the first phase was implemented, they received no support from either Gov. Blanchard, who was in office at the time, or Engler, his successor.
Smith also said the legislation standardized judicial salaries, adding that prior to that, salaries had been paid by the local unit of government and a small stipend from the state. With the 1980 legislation, the state took on lion’s share of judges’ salaries. That stayed in place from 1980 to 1996.
According to Smith, Wayne County saved $30 million annually during those 16 years.
Ficano also said the county has tried to get the court to make some reforms, such as going to e-filing to avoid the paperwork. Federal government and Oakland County both do it. In addition, the county asked the court to consolidate its IT services with the county’s, saying that the court having its own IT department creates havoc.
Smith isn’t opposed to the idea of one IT system, but said he has to protect the integrity of certain court files. He pointed out that they can’t be exposed to any county employee just because that employee is in the county IT system.
“As long as there are safeguards to protect the privacy of the court files, we would consider it,” Smith said. “But that’s not unless we get an agreement with the executive, which we tried to do over an 18- month time frame.”
When Smith took over as chief judge on Jan. 1, 2009, he’d already been in discussions with Ficano over funding of the court systems since September 2008. He said that during the 18 months of discussion, they tried to resolve differences in terms of funding, technology and facilities. He also said even though Ficano had gotten approval for the bonds to continue to pay for the court’s computer system, he refused to spend any of that money to continue implementation of the computer system within the circuit court.
That refusal extended to the purchase of imaging equipment the Wayne County Clerk needed in order to have documents entered into that new computer system, according to Smith.
Smith also said the county has done nothing to improve the technology of the court system, and that the court’s civil, criminal, domestic relations and juvenile divisions (the latter two within the family division), each has a computer system that can’t speak to the others.
The courts, he said, are operating with 30-year-old equipment and computers that run Windows 98.
Smith also called the layoffs Ficano insisted on as part of the county’s 2008 and 2009 budgets “onerous.” He said the 2009 budget cut the court’s employees from 356 to 127.
The court got an injunction against those layoffs, but Smith said that even so, he’s not opposed to making reductions. He said he did that by March of 2009, and that the court laid off 54 employees, and eliminated 17 sheriffs, which, he said, would have saved the county approximately $13 million.
Smith maintains that it’s untrue that the circuit court has made no effort to reduce costs. He also said the court can’t have a deficit.
“We don’t raise money,” Smith said. “We have no ability to fund the operation of the circuit court.”
He also noted that state law requires the local unit of government to fund the circuit court. By law, the sheriff is to provide as many deputies that Smith, as chief judge, believes are necessary for the protection of the circuit court; and the Wayne County Clerk is required to have a clerk in every courtroom, so that transcriptions and court business can take place.”
Smith asked where he should make cuts. Should he close the civil division, where business is transacted, and disputes between businesses are settled? The criminal division, where the court is constitutionally required to provide a criminal defendant a timely trial? The juvenile division, where children who are being abused and neglected are protected, and remedies are in place to try to change the behavior of young delinquents? Or the domestic relations division?
“So where were these cuts supposed to take place?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s why we went to court.”