Chief justice warns of potential job cuts in judicial branch

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's chief justice warned Tuesday that the governor's scaled back budget proposal for the judiciary would jeopardize nearly 400 jobs in the judicial branch.

Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. told lawmakers that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's budget proposal fell nearly $49 million short of fully funding court operations for the next two years. Court operations would take another $7.5 million hit each year through a fund transfer, he said.

If lawmakers went along with the governor's recommendation, the judicial branch would have to cut 387 positions, amounting to 11.4% of its non-elected workforce, Minton said.

“I'm sure you can understand how damaging that would be to our ability to do justice across the commonwealth," Minton told a House budget review subcommittee.

Salaries and benefits for court personnel consume 88% of total court operations funds, said Minton, who as chief justice is the administrative head of the state court system.

Minton received a sympathetic response from the panel as lawmakers continue preliminary work before crafting their own version of funding state government for the next two years.

“That's a heavy hit to the operations budget," said Republican Rep. Jason Petrie.

Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jason Nemes, warned that the governor's budget proposal would hurt drug courts, judicial programs that assist troubled youths and legal aid.

“I feel confident that this body can come together, and I'm sure you would rather see our budget than" the proposal from the governor, said GOP Rep. John Blanton.

“I'm here today with that hope," Minton replied.

Beshear's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

In addition to the 1 percent annual salary increase for all court employees that Beshear proposed, Minton is seeking a 2.5% increase each year for them. Minton said that would mean a 3.5% annual pay raise for all court employees, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

Minton's compensation plan would cost $7.4 million in the first year of the next budget cycle and $14.9 million in the second year, he said.

Kentucky's judges rank at the bottom nationally in pay, he said. Salaries for the judicial branch's non-elected employees have traditionally trailed similar executive branch jobs by about $3,000 to $7,000, he said.

The judicial branch represents just 3% of the state's total budget but accounts for 10% of the state's workforce, Minton said. The judicial branch includes 406 elected justices, judges and circuit court clerks and nearly 3,400 non-elected court employees. Statewide, the court system handles nearly 870,000 cases each year, he said.

Minton also proposed building new judicial centers in Butler, Clinton and Owsley counties and making renovations and additions in Crittenden and Jessamine counties.