The issue of the lack of legislative review of the judiciary’s budget has been simmering at the State Capitol for a few years now. Some lawmakers object to the State Supreme Court’s power to determine its own budget with no oversight from lawmakers.
The judiciary’s budget autonomy is written into the state Constitution. Article VI, Section 51, Subsection A(5) actually states that the legislature does not have the authority to decrease the judiciary’s budget.
In theory, the court could ask for significant budget increases every year and there’s nothing the legislature could do about it. In practice, however, the court has generally worked with lawmakers to craft a reasonable budget that is in line with state spending. That shows restraint.
The General Revenue portion of the judiciary’s budget this fiscal year is $141,759,670. That’s a lot of money, but it has increased less than two percent over the last three budget years.
In 2016, the legislature considered a joint resolution to amend the state Constitution by eliminating the judiciary’s budget protection, but it didn’t go anywhere. There was no groundswell of support or particular constituency motivated enough to take on the State Supreme Court.
However, that changed this week with the revelation by WCHS TV of excessive spending and waste on Supreme Court office furnishings—a $32,000 couch and $7,500 for an inlaid wooden floor in the state’s design in Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s office; $28,000 rugs and an $8,000 chair in Justice Robin Davis’s office; a $9,000 sofa in Justice Margaret Workman’s chambers, to name a few.
All paid for with taxpayer dollars.
The luxury furnishings were part of a general renovation of the Supreme Court’s Capitol offices. The initial estimate was $900,000 back in 2009, but that ballooned to $3.7 million with changes, additions and, yes, fancy furniture.
Legislative leaders say the luxury spending has renewed interest in the constitutional amendment. “This just isn’t right,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) on MetroNews Talkline. “We’re going to make an effort to change that.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott said he has no issue with upgrades to the historic Capitol building that are “appropriate and necessary,” but he adds that he “was stunned and angered by the amount that was spent for some of the furnishings that are more temporary.”
Changing the Constitution is not easy. It requires a two-thirds vote by both chambers of the legislature and then approval by the voters. Additionally there will be compelling arguments against it. Would legislative oversight inject more politics in to the judiciary? Would justices and judges feel compelled to craft decisions that meet approval of those who control the purse strings?
Those are rational questions that will need to be debated during the upcoming session. However, it’s going to be hard for lawmakers and the public to get the image out of their minds of a $32,000 couch.
“We’ve had some very difficult financial times. We have state employees at nearly every agency that are not well paid,” Shott said. “The thought that someone would spend that kind of money on a piece of furniture in view of those situations is just really troubling.”