Chief Justice Alexandro Cruz Castro appealed to lawmakers yesterday to approve the $4.3-million budget the Office of the Governor is proposing for the Judiciary in fiscal year 2021.
That amount includes a $900,000 increase from the original $3.4-million proposal. The additional amount, according to special assistant for Management and Budget Virginia Villagomez, is intended to help the Judiciary bring back all their staff to 64 hours, as well as an extra to pay for utilities.
While acknowledging that the proposal does not address each and every need of the Judiciary up until the end of this fiscal year, Castro said the Judiciary supports the governor’s proposed budget, recognizing “three monsters” before the CNMI—the miscalculated projection of revenues, the economic downturn, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking at the budget hearing for the Judiciary yesterday, Castro said that, even prior to the pandemic, the Judiciary has already been running on a skeleton crew, which they had to trim further in their budget submission.
“Any further cuts through that budget submission…would trigger an event that I don’t want to see and I believe all of us here don’t want to see. That is, we’re going to start cutting back all the judicial services on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, and…close the doors of justice on Rota and Tinian, and then we [will] end up going back to the Trust Territory era,” he said, referring to the time in the ’70s when the CNMI was under the Trust Territory government of the United Nations. At that time, according to the chief justice, courts only go down to Rota and Tinian every three years.
When asked if they would be able to operate with a $4.3-million budget, Castro said that it is going to be tough. “I may have to lay off more people, I may have to shut down Rota [and] Tinian, but I’m hoping not to do it. We’re looking at other options. I’ve asked our legal counsel to start looking at CARES Act, to see whether or not we can go in there and find additional funding,” he said. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, is a recently-enacted law intended to help states and territories cope with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Hearing that such a budget could possibly lead to the shutdown of the courts on Rota and Tinian, Rep. Antonio San Nicolas Borja (R-Saipan) said, “Please, just don’t shut down the two islands,” and assured the Judiciary that they will try and help.
At the moment, Presiding Judge Roberto C. Naraja said that the managers and staff within the Judiciary are multitasking. Adoption cases are on hold because there is only one employee at the Family Court Division; one Probation Office is holding more than 100 cases, where the recommended is at 30 to 60 at the maximum; and 15 people are on the waitlist for the Drug Court Program.
“Any further cuts on our proposed submission will severely hamper the people’s rights to access to justice, and may lead to the complete shutdown of our court services,” he added.
The Judiciary has been venturing into electronic means to substitute for staffing, and recently expanded their e-filing to encompass criminal cases and small claims, among others.
Castro also asked the Legislature to give the Judiciary 100% reprogramming authority to provide it flexibility in addressing their internal needs and for the budget allocation to be made not monthly but quarterly.