By James B. Kelleher
(Reuters) - Kentucky's top judge announced plans on Wednesday to temporarily shut down the state's court system to cope with what he characterized as "deep cuts" in the judiciary's budget.
John Minton Jr., the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, said 3,700 workers, including more than 400 judges and circuit court clerks, would be furloughed without pay for three days between August and October, forcing courthouses statewide to close.
Minton, who serves as the administrative head of the state's court system, said it would be the first time since Kentucky overhauled its court system in 1976 that courts would close to save money.
Kentucky joins a long list of states that have imposed cuts on court services in recent years in a bid to balance budgets hurt by the economic downturn, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Critics of the cuts, including Chief Judge Eric Washington, the head of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, have blasted the money-saving measures, saying they delay access to justice and put the rule of law at risk.
Minton said the furloughs in Kentucky and several other money-saving measures were needed after lawmakers cut the judicial branch's budget for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, by more than $25 million.
"Our situation is serious," Minton said in a statement. "In spite of our efforts to secure adequate funding, the legislature's appropriation is far short of what is necessary to operate the Kentucky court system."
In addition to the furloughs, Minton said the Kentucky court system would cut hours and benefits for part-time employees and increase the price state courts charged for criminal record reports.
Minton said his staff would meet again in January to assess the judiciary's budget situation and warned that additional furloughs and program reductions were possible in 2013.
Since 2008, Kentucky has laid off nearly 300 court employees and eliminated other programs to cope with budget cuts imposed by the legislature, Minton said.
(Editing by Paul Simao)