Declining Court Budgets a Troubling Trend
By William T. Robinson, III
President, American Bar Association
We all experience delays that slow down and frustrate our daily lives, from traffic jams on a city street, to long lines at a grocery store. But some delays are more than an inconvenience--these delays threaten the very core of our constitutional democracy.
William T. Robinson, III
For several years, the American Bar Association has identified a troubling trend in our state courts resulting from increasing workloads and declining budgets.
State judiciaries handle approximately 95 percent of all cases filed in the United States, according to the National Center for State Courts. In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, states reported 106 million incoming trial court cases--the most in 35 years. Anecdotally, we know that trend has continued as more people represent themselves and legislators add more laws to the books.
Yet NCSC says 42 states--including New Hampshire--reduced their court budgets in fiscal year 2011. The courts closed their doors for 12 days between April 2010 and March 2011, and all staff was required to take unpaid furlough days during that time. Nine judicial vacancies remained unfilled, and some courthouses closed in the afternoons for a few days each week, according to Linda Stewart Dalianis chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, in testimony before the ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System.
Since then, the New Hampshire Supreme Court decided it will no longer close the courts to the public or issue furlough days. As a result, the courts have had to implement staff layoffs and issue early retirements. Civil and criminal jury trials are only held eight months a year.
Courts around the country have made difficult decisions just as you have in New Hampshire. In Alabama, the courts are closed on Fridays. Massachusetts has lost more than 1,100 trial court employees through attrition. The lines at San Francisco courts are so long that people bring lawn chairs to use while they wait.
People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach the courtroom. If our legal system isn’t accessible, then it can’t be just and it won’t be fair.
The constitutional argument for sustainable funding for our courts is simple: The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government responsible for protecting our rights. The practical argument is equally compelling. The courts decide matters that go to the very core of our daily lives such as when a parent petitions for custody of a child or when a family fights foreclosure of its home.
The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just 1 percent of a state’s entire budget--that’s often less than a state allocates for an executive branch agency. In New Hampshire, the courts receive 1.5 percent of the budget pie.
Members of the legal community are beginning to understand this situation. Courts are doing their part to demonstrate efficiency and innovation, including those in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Judicial Branch Innovation Commission is the driving force behind the restructuring of its judicial system. The state is working to expand its use of video conferencing for arraignments and hearings and to develop an e-court system that will allow many court functions to go paperless.
The ABA is continuing the work of its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, bringing together those affected by this crisis to discuss strategies to help our judiciary. The task force has created a venue to share court funding stories and creative ideas at its website at www.americanbar.org.
The ABA is also working with state and local bar associations to rethink how to sensibly spend taxpayer dollars to ensure public safety. In 2010, New Hampshire enacted criminal justice reforms in response to a 31 percent increase in its prison population and a doubling of state spending on corrections. These reforms, which include more focused supervision of high-risk offenders and shorter probation for low-risk offenders, will hopefully generate savings that can be applied to other sanction and treatment programs. Many similar initiatives around the country are succeeding in promoting public safety, reducing recidivism and saving money.
Finally, we must articulate what courts do and why they are so essential by more effectively educating legislators and the general public--especially young people, because that civic knowledge will drive a renewed dedication to the preservation of our justice system.
Courts must be open, available and adequately staffed. No one would accept closing the local emergency room, or the local fire house or the local police station for one day a week. Our justice system is no different. Let’s join together to fight for this access, otherwise... No courts. No justice. No freedom.
William T. (Bill) Robinson III is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.