Editorial | Mullen: Keep Moving the Ball: Justice delayed is still justice denied. 

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If state judges were measured by BCS standards, Christine Durham would have no problem busting her way into the big leagues. Like Florida, or Michigan, Utah’s Supreme Court Chief Justice would have her ranking secured.

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Among top legal minds, Durham is what Urban Meyer is to championship football: Bright and dead-set on moving the ball downfield. She’s confident in her game, and others in positions of power respect that. President Bill Clinton once put her on his short list for a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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If I haven’t stretched the metaphor too far already, I’ll add that Durham, like any good SEC or Big 12 coach (hell, I’ll add Kyle Whittingham here, as well), is a realist. The economic crisis is gutting the state judicial system, and Durham told the Legislature so in her speech.

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It’s true that no matter which state budget scenario you use—Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s 7 percent cut, or legislative Republicans’ current recommended 15 percent—every department will suffer. We’ve already seen the preview in proposed slashing of people-heavy budgets. Earlier this month, legislative leaders were talking seriously about eliminating the Utah Health Department altogether. Flu epidemics? Poopy public swimming pools? Dramatic increase in HIV cases or infant mortality rates? Addressing those problems falls on the health department. It’s hard to believe those and a hundred other public health issues seriously could be handled properly by the equally strapped Health and Human Services department. But placing health under HHS is the alternative GOP leaders have been tossing around.

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As for HHS, a few weeks back, I wrote here about the possible death of the agency’s most successful programs, should the 15 percent budget cuts pass. Meals on Wheels, which served more than 12,000 elderly Utahns last year, could simply evaporate. In the past few days, I’ve heard from state and county employees arguing for their own programs: the cost effectiveness of meth addiction recovery programs or the fear that adult protective services would completely disappear, leaving older Utahns at the mercy of physically abusive and manipulative family members.

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Even before the Legislature convened, somber parents of children with autism flooded a committee hearing, holding framed photos of their disabled kids. These parents are fighting funding cuts to preschool programs and pushing for insurers to cover a specific autism treatment purported to all but cure the condition. Most legislators—working at the behest of the insurance lobby, which always funds them well—have never taken kindly to forcing mandates on insurers. But then autism is increasingly being diagnosed in middle- and upper-class families, with parents who typically have the time and energy to speak out. Autism treatment, in fact, may well be the third rail of human service needs this year—who on the Hill would want to go near it with the budget machete?

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So then, what about the state courts? You can almost read our law-and-order Legislature’s mind right now. We’re talking about a bunch of criminal lowlifes, after all. Who cares?

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Durham got back to moving the ball. She outlined a list of steps the state court system has already taken to trim its budget before the fiscal year ends on June 30. Sixty employees have been laid off. In-house court reporters no longer exist—proceedings are now audiotaped. A hiring freeze went into place last September. Judicial vacancies will go unfilled until … who knows when?

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Under the more optimistic picture of a 7 percent budget cut, Durham said court employees would be furloughed for a full 26 days before June 30. That’s the bright side. But the chief justice also came with a game plan for building toward a better fiscal future: She recommended legislators raise court filing fees for civil cases (which should rankle the trial lawyers’ lobby) and pass a law allowing the state to intercept individuals’ federal tax refunds for paying off court debts.

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Her suggestions for funding mechanisms are brilliant, really, and they go straight to the people who can best afford them. For one thing, as Durham pointed out, state courts have seen a 22 percent jump in civil-court filings—the first double-digit increase in the state judiciary’s history. Let the plaintiffs pay to play.

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Whether it’s the elderly, child-abuse victims or Medicaid recipients, every state agency will end up hurting people by the time the Legislature ends. The courts—which Durham says use 91 percent of their budget on people—can’t escape the same big hurt. But then, funding delayed means justice delayed. And, as I’ve heard Durham quote 19th century British politician William Gladstone, “justice delayed is justice denied.” 

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(Not) According to Jim:
n It’s been 178 weeks since Rep. Jim Matheson
n spoke to
City Weekly.

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