Utah's court system found a way to increase efficiency, serve more people and open public access in spite of recessionary budget cuts primarily by leaning on technology.
The courts made deep cuts in staff, eliminated court reporters and streamlined the judicial process, but the system may have reached its limit in order to continue moving forward, officials told lawmakers Tuesday, they need more money.
Court administrators presented their case for a slight increase in funding to state legislators at a subcommittee meeting at which they lobbied particularly hard for a $160,000 bump to hire technology programers that will help fully digitize the state court system.
"Our technology department is the same size as it was 10 years ago, but what we do with it is as different as night and day," Utah Court Administrator Daniel Becker told the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. "We're spending right. We've prioritized our needs."
Starting April 1, all civil cases will be filed electronically. The courts have been moving in that direction for several years.
But in order to fully implement a digital system in all civil, criminal, juvenile and appellate cases, Becker said, new features will be needed. The courts would use the money to hire programmers to assist in this overhaul.
The Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst recommended giving the courts what they're asking for $1,277,700 additional, which amounts to less than 1 percent of last year's state courts budget and includes the addition of two judges to the 8th Judicial District, more interpreters and the $160,000 in programming funds to help move the courts from a paper to an electronic system.
"What we're looking at is a one-time opportunity to change how we do things," Assistant State Court Administrator Rick Schwermer said after the meeting. "At the heart of the recession, when most other states said we need to put a hold on making any changes, we accelerated. We put funding into things that made us more efficient and cut costs. Thanks to technology, it's the right time to make this shift."
State legislators appeared receptive to the courts' request and several took turns commending the courts' ability to make the most out of the limited funds they were given.
"We're so grateful for what you have done, the pattern and standard you have set," said Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who is an attorney. "This is a shining, wonderful day for the legal profession."
If the Legislature complies with the courts' requests, the state courts' operating budget would exceed the more than $132 million the state allocated last year, most of which is used to pay for leases, contracts and salaries.