Oregon chief justice seeks end to furloughs

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SALEM — Oregon's Supreme Court chief justice said he'd like to see an end to mandatory unpaid furloughs for employees, restoration of circuit-court staff positions and funding for a new electronic records system that will replace one that is frustratingly out of date.

Chief Justice Thomas Balmer said he will make the requests in the Judicial Department's budget request, which goes to lawmakers.

“Delivering justice is a noble goal,” Balmer said at his first state of the courts address. “As a state, we need to give our institutions the tools they need to work toward equal justice for all.”

Speaking to a group of Marion County lawyers, Balmer says Oregon courts are “sturdy” but need financial help to keep them working. Budget cuts have hit courts hard, with some operating just four days a week.

“We can improve our productivity if we can add back some of the staff we have cut,” Balmer said. “We can help judges work more efficiently.”

Balmer oversees the caseload of the state's highest court and is responsible for the two-year budget for 1,600 employees in Oregon's 36 counties, divided into 27 judicial districts.

Among Balmer's goals is to ensure continued funding for a new electronic records system known as eCourt, now used in the appellate courts and in four counties, to replace a system based on 1980s technology.

Eleven more counties, including Marion County, are scheduled to make the conversion in the next two-year budget cycle.

Balmer also seeks to save 10 counties' drug courts, which were rescued by a one-time federal grant. Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposes $9 million for these courts, which require drug offenders to undergo treatment and complete other steps.

Balmer is also seeking pay increases for nearly 200 elected judges, who last saw a pay increase five years ago.

He also wants money to renovate or repair courthouses and the Supreme Court Building, whose exterior is crumbling.

Balmer likened the state of Oregon's courts to the condition of the century-old Supreme Court building.

“They are sturdy,” he said, “but they are showing cracks that need to be repaired.”

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