When we underfund our courts, we undermine our democracy. Budget cuts to the judiciary threaten economic growth and public safety. They jeopardize the independence of the legal profession and America’s constitutional system of justice. But the future looks brighter because a growing coalition of bar leaders and other stakeholders is fully committed to educating the public and agitating politically for sustainable funding of our courts.
Across the nation, our courts are in crisis. According to the National Center for State Courts, 32 states reduced funding for their judiciaries in fiscal year 2010. Budget cuts have continued in 2011 from Hawaii to Maine.
At least six states close their courthouses at least one day each week because of inadequate funding. Fifteen states have reduced the number of hours that courts are open to serve the public. Fourteen states have laid off judicial staff.
A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse. In Georgia, the budget is so lean that courts solicit pen and pencil donations from vendors like LexisNexis and Westlaw. The lines at San Francisco courts are so long that people bring lawn chairs to use while they wait.
The judiciary is a coequal branch of government. It is an integral part of our constitutional democracy. Yet throughout the United States we see that some state 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 3.5 percent.
All bar associations should advocate for sustainable long-term funding for our state judiciaries. Only when lawyers, judges, bar associations, and stake-holders (a term that applies to every business and resident of our nation) come together on this critical issue can we begin the long process of restoring the financial stability of our justice system. New alliances will help us find a new path forward in the face of shrinking budgets, political indifference, and public ignorance.
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 , the for State Courts, and LexisNexis. This national conference demonstrated that there is a will to collaborate and develop needed strategies for the future of our court system.
Each of the identified constituent groups can advocate with compelling reason. Lawyers can argue on behalf of their clients who must wait through interminable delays to later receive the justice they deserve now. Judges can talk about the fundamental role of our courts—how they stabilize society by rendering judgment after judgment with an even hand. The business community is rightfully concerned about the potential dangers to the orderly, measurable process used to settle business and liability disputes. For the average person, open courts ensure the ability to file for divorce, seek custody of a child, or save a home from foreclosure. Access to justice protects everyone’s constitutional rights.
Courts themselves are doing their part to demonstrate integrity, efficiency, and innovation. The ABA is continuing the work of its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System (www.americanbar.org/groups/justice_center/task_force_on_the_preservation_of_the_justice_
system.html), 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.
Finally, we must articulate what courts do and why they are so essential by more effectively educating legislators and the general public about this crisis. The theme of Law Day 2012 reflects our battle cry: “No Courts. No Justice. No Freedom.” We hope your bar association participates in this annual celebration of freedom and the rule of law. (For planning materials and more information, visit www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/initiatives_awards/law_day.html.)
Courts must be open, available, and adequately staffed. No one would accept closing the local emergency room, or the local firehouse or the local police station for one day a week. Our justice system is no different. It is time to stand up and speak out for our courts. If not us, who? If not now, when?