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Supreme Court warns jury trials could be at risk with budget cuts

On Behalf of | May 2, 2024 | Civil Rights

The right to a “trial by jury” is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — as well as the New Mexico Constitution. That right could be in jeopardy, according to the New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon, because of a lack of funds.

This warning came amid new budget constraints. These are partly due to lawmakers’ elimination of “post-adjudication fees” last year. It was determined that they disproportionately harmed poor people and, in fact, sometimes weren’t worth the cost of collecting them.

Earlier this year, the entire New Mexico Supreme Court attended a budget hearing in the state legislature to sound the alarm about the risk of New Mexicans losing this constitutional right as well as other potential effects of this lack of funding.

The costs of a jury trial

One reason prosecutors typically try to avoid taking a case to trial is the cost of doing so. However, the number of jury trials rose by over 30% between 2022 and 2023.

In addition to paying jurors for travel, the state requires that they be paid the state minimum wage for their time. Besides juror expenses, the government must pay expert witnesses called to testify by prosecutors as well as public defenders. Chief Justice Bacon noted, “Individuals accused of crime will not be able to adequately defend themselves because of the lack of expert witness funding.” 

She predicted that if the planned budget cuts are implemented, “jury trials will end in the state of New Mexico in December.” She noted that this is unfair both to those accused of crimes as well as to the victims.

Even if there’s enough money for criminal trials, there may not be enough left to have juries for civil trials – for example, for serious personal injury cases. Further, because of a related constitutional right – a speedy trial – if prosecutors can’t bring a case to trial within a reasonable time, they may have to drop the charges.

Most people don’t consider that preserving their constitutional rights often comes with a significant price tag to the government. This budget shortfall was serious enough for the entire state high court’s bench to weigh in on the potential threat to both New Mexico residents’ rights as well as public safety.