Court offices to close Fridays if Jan. 28 tax measure fails

Circuit Court Judge Phillip Mendiguren and Trial Court Clerk Jary Homan express concerns about pending budgetary cutbacks statewide if the Jan. 28 tax measure does not pass. Photo by Rocky Wilson

The trauma of having a child stolen in a custody battle could be compounded between March 1 and June 30, 2003, if the theft takes place on a Thursday night or a Friday. Because of proposed budget cutbacks to the Oregon Judicial Department, barring a surprise passage of the Oregon Jan. 28 income tax measure, no staff will be working on Fridays to field such a complaint.

Speaking of a worst case scenario Union/Wallowa Circuit Court Judge Phillip Mendiguren of the 10th Judicial District says such claims could not be filed until the following Monday.

In line with budget cuts being implemented in agencies all across the state Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson, Jr., has instructed each court in Oregon to reduce staff work hours by 10 percent. The most common means of implementing that decree, as to be put in place March 1 in Union County, will be to reduce all 40 hour employees working five eight-hour days to working four nine-hour days. All appellate, tax and circuit courts in the state will be closed on Fridays for the four month stretch until the budgetary biennium is completed. Whether it would be continued beyond June 30 is open to conjecture.

All trials would have to be placed on a four-day schedule. Search warrants, which do not require staff assistance for a judge, who is on call 24 hours per day, can still be issued.

The 10th Judicial District employs 14.5 people in La Grande, three in Enterprise, Circuit Court judges Mendiguren and Eric Valentine, Trial Court Administrator John De Nault and one security officer. De Nault has been given the task of shaving $63,000 from the district budget in the projected four month period.

Aware of the budgetary constraints for several months, district personnel have volunteered to take leave without pay. Though there have been no layoffs in Wallowa County, there was a layoff of one computer operator in Union County. Mendiguren said that his judicial assistant picked up the computer duties and has been "busier than heck" because of it. Another criminal division/ probation assistant left her post and no one was rehired into the position.

In a memorandum circulated last week, De Nault said that effective March 1 employees would work Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. with doors open to the public 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. Though most staff would not working during the noon hour, the traffic and accounting office in La Grande would remain open from noon to 1 p.m.

The Oregon Judicial Department works from a case priority list established last December which itemizes which type of cases are given priority on a court docket. Top on the list are person-to-person felonies for both adult and juvenile, and juvenile permanency cases concerning the termination of parental rights and dependency matters.

To reduce judicial time and court expenses numbers 18 and 17 on the list, small claims and non-person misdemeanors for adults and juveniles, will not be heard before a judge March 1 through June 30. Mendiguren says that cases can still be filed and given case numbers, but the court will not proceed with such matters during the four month period.

Small claims includes civil matters of less than $5,000 while non person misdemeanors includes some game cases and shoplifting. If the cuts were to continue up from the bottom of the priority list the next types of cases not heard before a judge would be violations and probate.

"There are some things people now take for granted that won't get done in the future," said Mendiguren. One major change could come in how judicial staff works with the public. At present staff takes the time to give judicial advice over the counter or over the telephone. Such could be curtailed in the future. "As the crunch goes on, I'm sorry, but we cannot afford the time to give the public that advice," said Mendiguren. "We will simply need for the staff to be more priority minded."

Wallowa County Trial Court Clerk Jary Homan, who works closely with both Mendiguren and Valentine, is mindful that the cuts, including the Friday closures, will not be put into effect if the Jan. 28 vote passes.

Homan is the only Wallowa County employee who would be put on a four day, nine-hour work schedule because the other two employees of the Oregon Judicial Department are part time workers. Tracey Hall and Klista Steinbeck each work 24-hour weeks and would be cut back 2.4 hours per week.

"This process promises to be by far the most difficult test Oregon's courts have ever faced," said Chief Justice Carson, Jr. The proposed budget cuts would be $50.5 million statewide and, according to a memo shared by Mendiguren, "By the time all cuts have taken effect, the Oregon Judicial Department expects that it will have lost nearly one-third of its staff."

"It will have a bigger impact on the larger courts," said Homan.

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