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Chief justice on courts: 'We have stopped budget bleeding'

Technology helps, but Balmer says staffing remains below pre-recession levels.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - Oregon Chief Justice Thomas Balmer says technology is helping state courts reduce paper and increase efficiency.Chief Justice Thomas Balmer says technology is helping Oregon courts reduce paper and increase efficiency of trial judges.

But Balmer, in his annual state of the courts address, also says that courts have not yet fully recovered from the economic downturn that cut into their staffing, hours and programs.

“We have stopped the budget bleeding,” Balmer said Friday in his talk to a luncheon of the Salem City Club and Marion County Bar Association.

“We have stabilized the system. We are not yet at the state of the healthy court system we envision. But we are confident we are moving in that direction.”

In addition to presiding over the Supreme Court and managing its caseload, the chief justice leads a unified system of appellate and trial courts.

Balmer has been on the high court since 2001 and its chief justice since 2012. He was a lawyer in Portland, and was the No. 2 official at the Oregon Department of Justice from 1993 to 1997, before his appointment.

Of the 27 judicial districts that cover Oregon’s 36 counties — a few districts include more than one county — 14 have now converted from paper to electronic filings in what is known as eCourt. Among the courts going online this past year are Multnomah County, which has the state’s largest circuit court, and Marion County in the seat of state government.

“If you have not heard about the go-live in Marion County, things must be going well,” Balmer says.

“The state has at least one information technology that is working,” he added, in contrast with the failed health insurance website for Cover Oregon. “It is not perfect. We still have bumps and unfinished business before it is done. But we have a good foundation for finishing the implementation of the system.”

The eCourt system replaces not only paper filings but computer technology that dates back to the 1980s.

When the conversion is completed by June 2016, Balmer says, the current 50 million pages that courts handle annually will shrink to a fraction – and records will be more accessible to the public, although there will be fees charged to help pay for operations.

Balmer also says an electronic filing system makes it possible for the courts to accept online payments and ensure quicker collections.

Meanwhile, Balmer says, video technology enables judges to conduct proceedings in prisons and far-flung communities.

Balmer has proposed a two-year budget of $573.4 million from all sources, up from $511.5 million, for the next cycle starting July 1. However, $55 million of the proposed budget is for capital costs, including a remodeling of the Supreme Court Building, up from the current $42.4 million.

Even at 1,974 positions and 1,833 full-time equivalent workers, the budget would still be less than the 2,071 positions and 1,911 FTEs at the 2007-09 peak.

During the downturn, Balmer says the courts lost about 15 percent of their staffing, and closed to the public periodically — closures often coinciding with unpaid days off by other state employees — from 2009 until furloughs ended in mid-2013.

Lawmakers approve the budget for the courts, as they for other state agencies, but the courts are not subject to the governor's budget review.

Oregon courts receive about 500,000 filings annually. Balmer says the number dipped during the downturn but are on the rise again.

Balmer’s remarks were livestreamed to courthouses around the state.

Although previous chief justices have given talks on the state of the courts, a formal annual address — similar to the state of the state given by the governor — was instituted in 2007 after Paul De Muniz became chief justice in 2006. Balmer succeeded De Muniz as chief justice in 2012, eight months before De Muniz retired from the court.


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Link to 2015-17 proposed budget by Chief Justice Thomas Balmer for Oregon courts: