Budget Cuts Put High-Profile Oklahoma Courts Website in Jeopardy

In a proposal before the House, the Legislature would take $22 million of the $23 million left in the tech fund for court operations -- which would mean the end of a website that gets 500,000 hits per day.

by Nolan Clay, The Oklahoman / May 6, 2015
Oklahoma State Courts Network
(TNS) -- Oklahoma judges are warning that proposed budget cuts threaten the existence of a popular website of court information viewed by the public more than 500,000 times a day.

Judges say oscn.net could shut down at times during the next fiscal year and for good the year after that. They say the impact would be major.

“It’s not just lawyers. It’s not just judges,” said Douglas Combs, vice chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. “It’s everybody that uses that system — the media, businesses that use it for record checks and background checks on individuals, landlords. The list goes on and on.”

The free Internet site provides details about civil, criminal, probate, small claims and divorce cases at 18 courthouses, as well as appeals at the Capitol.

For many of the counties, the actual legal filings in the cases can be viewed online.

Paying for the Internet site is a $25 fee assessed in all civil cases. Those fees brought in almost $15 million in fiscal year 2014.

The money also goes to pay for all the judiciary’s information technology — down to the computers judges use to write their opinions.

Last year, the Legislature took $10 million from the information technology fund for other court operations.

In a proposal now before the House, the Legislature this year would take $22 million of the $23 million left in the tech fund for other court operations.

Combs said the cuts are a serious threat to the future of oscn.net because it leaves no cushion.

“That skins us to the bone,” he said Monday.

“We’re running a court system like you’re running a mom-and-pop grocery store. You’re checking your till every night to see whether or not you’ve raised enough money to keep the doors open the next day. That’s what it would force us to do. ... If our collections do not meet what we’ve been able to do in the past, then we have absolutely no cushion, no savings account ... There’s a distinct chance we could run out of money before 2016 fiscal year ends.”

Under the proposal, despite the depletion of the tech fund, the Legislature still will appropriate millions of dollars less to the judiciary in the coming fiscal year than this year.

The fiscal year starts in July.

The Supreme Court’s chief justice, John Reif, said Monday he was not ready to hit the panic button yet.

He said the real concern is not how does the state judiciary get through the next fiscal year but what lies in store the fiscal year after.

Reif noted that is when the Legislature no longer will have a tech fund to tap.

“There’s nowhere to go. The Legislature is going to have to find money for the court system,” Reif said. “There is a big hole ... looking ahead.”

Judges across the state Friday were urged to contact their local legislators and encourage them to appropriate adequate monies from the general revenue fund to finance the operation of the courts.

“These cuts are going to affect all of us in our own backyards,” Custer County Special Judge Donna L. Dirickson wrote judges in an email.

Dirickson is president of the Oklahoma Judicial Conference.

Her email noted the judiciary is “an equal branch of government.”

“Immediate conversations with our legislators are going to be critical, and I am the first to admit they will not be easy conversations to have,” she wrote.

©2015 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.