|Rural counties uneasy about possible court closings|
|Written by Wauneta Breeze|
|Friday, 14 January 2011 22:24|
Move unlikely anytime soon, says state senator
By Josh Sumner
The Wauneta Breeze
As budget concerns have Nebraska lawmakers scrambling for ways to save money, reorganization of the state’s judicial branch has become a hot topic around the state.
One particular money-saving idea — closing the state’s 30 smallest county court offices — has gained extra attention.
The idea was first floated by Nebraska’s Legislative Judiciary Committee last month after state agencies were required by the Nebraska Legislature to come up with ways of shaving the budget. Members of the Unicameral have been busy looking for ways to trim the $986 million state budget gap.
Included in the idea of closing 30 offices is the reduction in staffing to an additional 32 county court offices.
“It’s a worst-case scenario,” said Nebraska Supreme Court Public Information Officer Janet Bancroft. “It’s what a 10 percent budget reduction would look like if we made cut backs based on filings.”
Concern immediately spread in the would-be affected areas that dot the state. County employees face the fear of losing their job, while rural citizens are nervous about losing services.
The implications of a reduction reach every corner of Nebraska. In southwest Nebraska, where county court case loads are among the lowest in the state, people are especially concerned.
“It would deny people access to the courts,” said County Court Judge Edward Steenburg. Steenburg hears cases in the 11th Judicial District, which includes Chase, Dundy, Hayes, Hitchcock and Perkins County.
Hayes and Perkins County each rely on part-time workers to process the paperwork for county court proceedings. If the idea discussed by the Judiciary Committee came to fruition, Hayes County’s court would close, while Perkins County’s court staff would be reduced beyond its already low level.
Also at risk of closing is Dundy County, while Hitchcock County would be slated to be reduced.
When asked who would be in charge of processing paperwork in those counties whose courts had closed, Judge Steenburg said he was stumped.
“I don’t know — that has not been explained to anybody,” said Steenburg.
If county court offices were closed in Dundy and Hayes counties, Chase County could quite possibly have to carry the workload.
According to the Judiciary Committee’s list of options, “Individuals in affected counties would most likely have to go to a neighboring county to receive courthouse services.”
People who live in Hayes Center would no longer have the luxury of driving down the street to their county courthouse — they would instead have to travel 55 miles to Imperial. It’s an even longer and less convenient trip for people in places like Haigler and Parks.
“People in rural counties could end up traveling hundreds of miles,” said attorney Joel Burke of Imperial.
State Sen. Brad Ashford, who serves as chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said this politically unpopular idea is unlikely to come to light — at least not any time soon. He said he thinks it will instead be re-examined by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican.
“I think we need another year to have the chief take a harder look at this,” said Ashford. “I don’t see this option being taken up this year. Maybe never.”
Ashford, state senator from Nebraska’s 20th Legislative District in Omaha, said he is sensitive to the needs of all Nebraskans.
“The question becomes, ‘How do we do this? What’s the right thing for us to do as a state?’” said Ashford. “We have to provide access to the courts in every one of our counties.”
Despite what Ashford says about the unlikelihood of this scenario, Judge Steenburg said he encourages citizens in those counties at risk of seeing a reduction or closure of their court services to contact their state senator.