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North Dakota Capitol in June 2018

As Gov. Doug Burgum has issued guidelines to North Dakota executive agencies for budget reductions, the state's judicial branch has requested a slight increase for the 2019-21 biennium. 

In its budget request submitted to the state Office of Management and Budget in early November, the judiciary asked for a 2.9 percent increase from 2017-19 in general fund revenue, or more than $2.9 million.

Included in that requested increase are seven new full-time district court staff positions costing about $1.5 million. Within those positions are a new judge and court reporter for the judicial district that includes Burleigh and Morton counties. 

North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said the request reflects the court system’s needs after cutting 35 full-time positions in 2017.

"I'm aware that this is contrary to what the governor's requested. I wish we could accommodate his request generally, but I can't in good faith do it," VandeWalle said Wednesday.

In April, Burgum issued budgetary guidelines to executive agencies calling for 5 percent or 10 percent reductions, depending on agency size, with a 3 percent "contingency." As a separate branch of government, the judiciary isn't bound by the governor's guidelines. 

Governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Burgum's budget guidelines "were just that: guidelines, or starting points for the budgeting discussion." 

The court system was "hit really hard" by the staff cuts in 2017, according to state court administrator Sally Holewa.

With court offices at 80 percent of ideal staffing, "significant errors" have increased, she said — such as eight cases of people arrested in the past year on warrants that should have been recalled.

From 2005 to 2017, there was one such instance, Holewa said.

"We've had instances of releases of information where there shouldn't have been, where we never saw those errors being reported before," she added. "Child support not being stopped when it should have been. Criminal case filings where charges were amended, but the clerk didn't catch it and change it in the computer system.

"Those are errors that are being caused by people being pushed too hard and too fast to get work done." 

About 75 percent of the judicial budget is salaries.

The judicial budget request "is a really hard look at what we need," Holewa added — such as the requested judgeship for a judicial district that is statistically three judges short.

Only the Legislature can add judgeships. Caseload data help when considering such requests, according to state Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who chairs the interim legislative Judiciary Committee. 

But adding a judge isn't just one-and-done, he added.

"If you agree that it's necessary to add a judge, it's almost a certainty that you'll have to add the support staff that goes with it," Hogue said. 

OMB Director Joe Morrissette said the judicial budget request will be included in Burgum's executive recommendation to be presented to the Legislature next week. OMB did nothing to the judicial budget request, he said, aside from applying recommended raises as applied for all other state government employees. 

North Dakota justices and judges also are budgeted for a 2 percent per year salary increase in the judicial budget request, which also includes an agency bill for $960,000 to remodel the state law library at the Capitol in Bismarck.

Given the electronic availability of many of its resources, the library space would be renovated to house "a small library of essential materials" and to relocate the state Supreme Court's information technology staff from its rental space. 

VandeWalle said the proposal would ultimately save money on books, staffing and rent, but requires statute amendments.

The chief justice also said he sees his judicial address to lawmakers as an opportunity "to outline very briefly" the courts' needs on Jan. 3, when the 2019 session begins.

"We are respectful of the governor's position, but we have an obligation, first and foremost, to make sure that we have a functioning judicial branch," Holewa said. 

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Capitol Reporter