Georgia’s top judges warned Gov. Sonny Perdue this week that forcing the state court system to absorb additional cuts this fiscal year could force courtrooms to close.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and Judge Melvin K. Westmoreland, president of the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia, told Perdue in separate letters that the budget reductions announced Thursday will have dire consequences and are — in their opinion — unconstitutional.
Perdue announced Thursday that state revenues had continued to decline and that every state agency would see a 25 percent cut in the state money they were to receive in June, the final month of the 2009 fiscal year. That amounts to about a 2 percent annual budget cut. A Perdue spokesman said Friday that the governor understands the judges’ frustrations, but that Perdue has the constitutional and statutory authority and responsibility to balance the state’s budget and that the cuts would continue as planned.
In her letter to the governor’s office, Sears said the judicial branch has “already reached the point whwere we had run out of ideas as to how to effectively perform our constitutionally mandated functions with less.”
Sears said that the Supreme Court would default on obligations if forced to accept the cuts and that district attorneys have said the reductions would impact “their ability to keep the courts open.” Other divisions of the judicial system have already spent their entire 2009 budget, she said.
Sears also said that she believes it is unconstitutional for the executive branch to withhold legislatively appropriated funds from the judiciary.
That sentiment was also echoed in Westmoreland’s letter to the governor. Westmoreland said he “rejects” the opinion of the Georgia attorney general’s office saying Perdue has the power to withhold judicial branch funding.
“In addition to the unconstitutionality of such an action, a 25 percent withholding would result in the effective shutdown of Superior Courts for at least two weeks,” he said.
But Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the “governor’s authority in this is very clear. We have a constitutional obligation to balance the budget and the governor has the statutory authority to withhold an equal amount of allotments.”
This is the fourth time this fiscal year that agencies have faced budget reductions as the state has slashed nearly $3 billion from the state budget due to plunging tax collections. Perdue on Thursday said agencies would have to absorb about $275 million in cuts in June.