ATLANTA Georgia's top judges averted an unprecedented legal maneuver today to protect a system plagued by financial woes, striking a last-minute compromise with the governor over millions of dollars in budget cuts.
The judicial branch will still have to slash 25 percent of its June budget, like other state departments. But Gov. Sonny Perdue agreed to allow officials to cut costs by deferring a chunk of the expenses until the next fiscal year, which begins in July. The cuts could total millions of dollars, though it's unclear how much will be deferred.
The governor also agreed to withdraw his demand that the judicial branch slash the budget a crucial issue for leaders who argued Perdue had no legal authority to order the cuts for an independent branch of government.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears said that concession will prevent a "power grab" by the executive branch.
"I know that we are both confident in the strength of our legal positions," Sears wrotetoday in a letter to the governor. "But I also know that as public servants our primary mandate is to do all we can on behalf of this state we both love so much."
The agreement came less than an hour before Sears and other top judges were set to meet in downtown Atlanta to decide whether to take legal action to block the governor's order.
Sears and other leaders had called the order "unconstitutional" and warned the cuts could bring the courts to a standstill. Perdue countered that the cuts were needed to cope with plummeting tax receipts in a recession.
He noted that other government groups including the legislative branch had adopted the cuts and warned the judicial branch to avoid "futile and unwise litigation."
State prosecutors had already been forced to trim their schedules before last week's order, and the cuts would have meant more furloughs. Judges warned the order could force the state's superior courts to shut down for two weeks. And the ailing public defender system, which was spared from the latest trimming, has also cut staff and slashed spending.
Georgia's legal woes are not as dire as other states, where budget cuts have forced officials to shut down courthouses a few days each month and reduce the number of jury trials.
But the speed and severity of the cuts has galvanized many of Georgia's judicial leaders, who warned the cuts could pose a threat to public safety.
"The governor may not appreciate this fact, but public safety and a strong court system are as important to the individual and corporate citizens of Georgia as anything else in state government," Melvin Westmoreland, a Fulton County jurist who leads the Council of Superior Court Judges, said before Friday's actions.