Commentary: A Crisis in Our Courts

Vol. 38 No. 4

By

Wm. 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.

No matter where we live, what language we speak, or what gender we are, every individual deserves to be treated fairly and equally. And yet we know that this statement is largely an ideal, especially in countries where the rule of law has not taken hold. But in the United States, where we take the right to vote and right to assemble for granted, our fundamental right to justice is now threatened by a crisis in our courts.

Simply put, while the docket is growing, the money is dwindling. And the consequences are real: People have to wait longer to gain custody of a child or fight foreclosure of their home. The saying holds true: Justice delayed is justice denied.

State judiciaries handle approximately 95 percent of all cases filed in the United States, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, states reported 106 million incoming trial court cases—the most in thirty-five years. Anecdotally, we know that trend has continued as more people represent themselves and legislators add more laws to the books.

Unfortunately, an increase in trial cases has not led to an increase in the number of judges. In fact, in many states the opposite has happened. Forty-two states cut funding for their judiciaries in 2011, says NCSC.

In Morrow County, Ohio, courts are closed on Fridays because of a funding shortage. New York City courts end a half hour early each day to avoid overtime costs. Massachusetts courts have lost 1,100 employees through attrition to meet budget demands. Courts in Georgia solicit pen and pencil donations from vendors like LexisNexis and Westlaw.

Due to California’s $350 million in cuts to the courts, lines start at the Sacramento court’s front door and wrap around the building as residents wait their turn. Our country should not have citizens camping outside a courthouse to get a restraining order in the same way we camp outside concert venues to get front-row tickets.

The judiciary is a coequal branch of government. Yet, throughout the United States we see that some courts must operate on less than individual departments in their state’s executive branch. Many judiciaries receive as little as 1 percent or less of the state budget pie, and no state court system receives more than 4 percent.

Members of the legal community are beginning to recognize this crisis and take action to remedy the fundamental flaws in how our courts are funded.

The University of Kentucky College of Law and Kentucky Law Journal recently held a symposium on court underfunding cosponsored by the American Bar Association, NCSC, and LexisNexis. This national conference demonstrated that there is a will to collaborate for the future of our judicial system.

Courts themselves are doing their part to demonstrate integrity, efficiency, and innovation. The expanded use of videoconferencing in Pennsylvania, for example, has saved taxpayers an estimated $21 million annually in defendant transportation costs.

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 better support our judiciary nationwide. The task force has created a venue to share court funding data and ideas at http://bit.ly/mPjNoc.

The ABA is also working with state and local bar associations to rethink how to sensibly spend taxpayer dollars to ensure public safety. We can’t sustain the costs of a system where states spend, on average, $23,000 per inmate per year. We need to decriminalize minor offenses, utilize pretrial release, and implement effective re-entry programs, among other criminal justice reforms.

Finally, we must also articulate what courts do and why they are so essential by more effectively educating legislators and the general public about this crisis. Civic education can 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.

Even in times of extreme economic hardship, our courts need sustainable financial support and essential resources to fulfill their constitutional responsibility. Our rights are being threatened, and we must stand together and speak out for our courts. Our liberty depends on it!

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