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The nation’s state and federal civil courts are at a crossroads, threatened by legislative budget cuts, sequestration and a growing sense that most Americans are not served by the justice system, a panel of current and retired jurists said at an opening session of the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
“In California, we are not dying but we are on life support,” said Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of that state’s supreme court.
Cantil-Sakauye joined top jurists from New York and Texas, and three current or retired federal judges in the ABA Centre CLE Showcase Program, “Are Courts Dying? The Decline of Open and Public Adjudication.” The program drew an overflow crowd. The ABA Annual Meeting continues through Tuesday, with the final session of the ABA House of Delegates.
Two Texans on the panel, Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson and retired U.S. District Court Judge W. Royal Furgeson Jr. warned that because of budget cuts and the generally high cost of legal representation people are getting shut out of the justice system.
“Our giant problem is we no longer serve our people,” said Furgeson, now dean of the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law. “Some 75 percent of the people in this country do not have access to lawyers. They can’t afford to.”
Jefferson quickly added. “People who are deprived of their rights will simply give up.”
While the panelists discussed a wide range of issues related to state and federal courts, they kept on coming back to adequate resources to ensure access to the courts on civil matters. In California the past four years, more than 750 court staff in more than 20 courts have been laid off and at least 44 of the 58 trial courts have instituted furlough days or hours. At least 18 counties have closed entire courthouses, individual courtrooms or both for fiscal reasons. In New York, courthouses have closed earlier than in the past and more than 400 staff members have been laid off.
Pointing to funding cuts and other policy issues, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said if the legal profession “doesn’t stand up no one will.”
“This is fundamental — really the most significant issue that we face,” he said. “We really have to take the lead. If we don’t, I don’t know who will.”
While budget cuts have severely hit the justice systems of the nation’s three most populated states, each top judge offered some encouragement. A study last fall by the National Center for State Courts indicated after four years of constant reductions, funding in most states has stabilized if not increased.
“The other branches [of government] see what is happening to the judiciary, and they don’t see this is a good thing for their futures,” Lippman said.
On the federal level, two sitting judges, U.S. District Court Judge Norma L. Shapiro and 6th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton observed that federal sequestration has hit the public defenders corps severely and other areas more moderately. But, Shapiro warned, “The federal courts are going to fall apart if this continues.”
In introducing the panel, moderator Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale University, outlined how the past century could be viewed as the “great triumph of courts” in ensuring equal justice under law and fostering the country’s constitutional democracy. She noted that 50 million suits are filed annually, and that the “challenge of the 21st [century] is what do you do with everybody who is here.”
The “Are Courts Dying?” program was sponsored by the Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements and the Standing Committee on Judicial Independence. Shapiro, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, is retiring as the chair of the former standing committee after several years as its head.