The governor and the Legislature have generated headlines during their long debate over raising taxes. But a telling subplot emerged in the state’s judicial branch, where the judiciary’s proactive budget measures underscored state lawmakers’ unwillingness to do the job they were elected to do: prioritize state spending.
In fiscal 2007, the judiciary initially received a legislative appropriation of $259 million, but the amount was later reduced by $4.1 million. In response, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, which together have administrative control of Michigan’s court system, took steps to cut spending.
The Supreme Court eliminated administrative positions, suspended contractual services, reduced planned equipment purchases and lowered total payroll costs by offering employees unpaid time off. Similarly, the Michigan Court of Appeals ended a contract attorney program, continued a hiring freeze, withheld worker promotions, suspended discretionary bonuses, closed operations for eight days around holidays, and mothballed the expedited "summary disposition track" that decides certain civil cases more quickly.
These steps helped matters in the short term. Sadly, however, the Legislature has ignored judicial recommendations that would promote meaningful long-term change.
In August 2007, the Supreme Court Administrative Office, an agency created by the state Constitution and overseen by a Supreme Court-appointed supervisor, issued its biennial recommendations. The SCAO proposed the elimination of 10 specific lower-court judgeships — three in the circuit courts and seven in the district courts — after analyzing county-by-county trends in caseloads, population and other data. The reductions would not only save the state approximately $1.6 million annually, but also would match the judiciary’s resources more closely to taxpayers’ actual needs. The Supreme Court has since upped the ante, recommending that the Legislature eliminate a total of 20 trial court judgeships.
In addition, the SCAO recommended reducing the number of Court of Appeals judges from 28 to 24. This downsizing would save around $1.4 million annually, but would theoretically allow the same number of cases to be handled by freeing $700,000 to hire key judicial support staff.
Thus, we have a rare example of a government department attempting to reduce and reorganize its workforce in ways that save money and maintain services. The Legislature and the governor, however, have failed to act on these recommendations to reduce judgeships in areas of the state where needs have fallen, even though lawmakers are always quick to increase judgeships in areas where needs have grown. Worse, this isn’t the first time lawmakers have ignored SCAO recommendations to prioritize the location of judgeships; they did the same in 2003 and 2005.
In fairness, some policymakers argue it’s better to err on the side of having too many judges. Still, excess judgeships too often serve as political plums for politicians to hand to their allies in the legal profession. Lawmakers’ steadfast refusal to accept any of the SCAO’s judicial reduction proposals has occurred in the midst of state spending excesses and economic hardship.
Unfortunately, Lansing policymakers’ failure to acknowledge priorities within the judiciary is dwarfed by their unwillingness to recognize priorities within state spending as a whole. To take just one example, the Legislature and governor continue to tolerate a state prevailing wage policy that mandates that contractors pay union wages — typically 40 percent to 60 percent above market wages, according to a recent study by the Mackinac Center — on construction projects financed or co-financed by state government.
This law adds an estimated $250 million per year to taxpayers’ tab for state and local government construction costs — an amount roughly equal to the state budget for the entire Michigan judiciary. Yet the Mackinac Center study indicates that the higher construction wages don’t improve construction quality, worker safety or cost-effectiveness. Rather, the law shields unions from competition and provides subsidies to construction workers who typically earn more than the state’s median income.
Surely such special-interest legislation is not a core government function in comparison to adjudicating criminal cases, civil rights cases, business lawsuits and child custody disputes. Yet the governor and the Legislature have retained the prevailing wage, rejected numerous proposed spending cuts and pondered tax hikes. You don’t need a black robe to judge the logic of this.
Patrick J. Wright, a former Michigan Supreme Court commissioner, is senior legal analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.