How Young Lawyers Can Help Save Our Courts

By:

Tommy Preston, Jr. is an associate at Nexsen Pruet, LLC in Columbia, South Carolina where is works on the firm’s Public Policy, Regulatory, and Economic Development Teams. Tommy served as the YLD Representative on the ABA’s Task Force for the Preservation of the Justice System. 

Some young lawyers may ask what does court funding have to do with lawyers being able to effectively represent a client. Furthermore, young lawyers may feel that court funding problems are for elected officials to address and does not involve lawyers who are new to the profession. The underfunding of our nation’s courts is without a doubt one of the most pressing issues facing our profession, and young lawyers are needed more than ever to help educate the public and elected officials on the importance of the judiciary.

It is not too presumptuous to say that our country’s courts are in a crisis. The failure of legislative bodies to provide adequate funding to sustain courts is effectively closing the doors of our judicial system. As former American Bar Association (ABA) President, H. Thomas Wells said in an opinion piece in newspapers around the country, “in a nation that views access to the courthouse door as the ultimate assurance of justice and fairness, we are at risk of losing the keys because of lack of necessary funding.” The country’s difficult economic situation has only exacerbated the situation. In his article, More than a Budget Line Item, former ABA President, Stephen N. Zack, said that “declines in the country’s economic health have been followed by an increase in court filings, and that trend is proving more pronounced than ever.”

A perfect example of this situation is in Florida. Last year, Florida had the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate in the country, even surpassing California. Jesse Diner from the Florida Bar commented on the severity of the situation:

“In the first 10 months of 2009, Florida already had 335,994 foreclosure filings, with a clearance rate of 60 percent – likely to top 400,000 cases for the year. Compare that with just three years ago, when foreclosure filings for all of 2006 were 73,878 and the clearance rate was 79 percent.”

With this significant foreclosure increase in Florida, and the fact that the current economic crisis has caused staff reductions and limited court resources, Diner says that judicial time is being taken away from other civil cases. 

Other states have faced similar crises. Last year, New York ended with 4.7 million cases, the highest in the state’s history, with increases in contract disputes, home foreclosure filings, misdemeanor charges, and even assaults by family members. Arizona reported eviction cases tripled last year and contract disputes were up 77%.  Ohio reported that more and more people are coming to court unable to afford legal representation, ultimately slowing down the court’s ability to get through hearings in an expeditious manner.

Over the past couple of years, courts of at least forty states were forced to take drastic measures simply to remain open and provide basic service to citizens, especially in a tough economy. According to the National Center for State Courts, thirty-one states experienced hiring freezes, twenty-eight states experienced salary freezes, twenty-five states were unable to fill judicial vacancies, fifteen states instituted staff furloughs, fourteen states reduced court operating hours, thirteen states were forced to lay off staff, and eight states furloughed judges.  Additionally, courts had to reduce or completely eliminate important services, “particularly services for vulnerable litigants and litigants with special needs.”  Eliminated programs included foreign-language and sign-language interpreters, guardian ad litems, counsel for indigent defenders, court reporters, and other court-appointed specialists. 

Some courts have had to temporarily shut down court operations; some even permanently. For example, in California, Los Angeles County had to close down twenty-nine courts.  Riverside and Sacramento closed down three trial courts each, and many other counties were forced to reduce court operating hours. In Massachusetts, the Chief Justice for Administration and Management was forced to temporally relocate 14 court facilities around the state because of a $21 million budget shortfall.

As evidenced through these examples, our state courts are in peril. More financial resources, long-term strategies, and court innovation are desperately needed to save our judiciary. This issue affects young lawyers directly, because if significant progress is not made immediately, our clients may never see their day in court. Additionally, clients may begin to see legal representation as hopeless, thus thwarting our opportunity to work.

Young lawyers must step up and get engaged in this issue. Our livelihoods as lawyers, our clients’ wellbeing, and the future of our courts depend on it. Whatever and wherever you practice, here are four fundamentals ways for helping solve this problem:

1.      Talk to Legislators

Conventionally, State lawmakers are ultimately responsible for state court budgets. Educating these leaders on the importance of the judiciary and how court delays limit your clients’ access to a fair proceeding can make a significant difference. Traditionally, the key players in discussions regarding sustaining or increasing court budgets have been judges who are directly affected by these cuts and local bar associations who represent the interests of the legal profession. Legislators prefer to hear from local constituents, so giving a personal perspective may convince them to better support the courts.

2.      Engage your clients

Ultimately, clients are affected the most if they have a difficult time getting into court because of massive caseloads, court closures, and limited court services. In South Carolina, the Chief Justice built a coalition of leaders from the business community to become champions for the courts. Businesses across the state began to talk to legislators about how delays in court were having a considerable impact on their profitability. Legislators began to listen because they recognized that reductions in court funding were directly linked to economic development in the state. Engaging your clients, whether they are individuals or businesses, puts a real face to the problem. 

3.      Educate the Public

As lawyers, we have a professional obligation to speak out on injustices. One way to contribute is by educating the general public on this issue. A reduction in court resources isn’t just about money; it’s about access to justice, fairness, and our rights as American citizens. Young lawyers can tell this story and provide a perspective that might engage the public in a way is hasn’t at this point.

4.      Don't Forget Your ABA Resources

The ABA Task Force for the Preservation of the Justice System is committed to providing the necessary resources to effectively speak out on this important issue. You can learn more about their efforts by visiting their website. Additionally, you can access their resource page.

Our clients’ ability to have access to courts is the most important legal issue of our time. Young lawyers can play a major role in addressing this issue, and we shouldn’t wait until matters get worse before we act.

The time is now!!

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