By Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III. The author (pictured) is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.
It is a shocking and deeply worrisome story that says everything about our beleaguered economy. It reflects a wider crisis that touches every community in our nation. Facing a 10 percent budget cut, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office recently announced that inadequate resources meant cases like domestic violence would no longer be prosecuted at the county level. In early October (Domestic Violence Awareness Month, incidentally) the Topeka City Council voted to decriminalize misdemeanor domestic battery.
At first glance, this may seem like an isolated case. It is not. Across our nation, our justice system is in crisis -- it is being starved.
Last year, the American Bar Association created the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System,co-chaired by Theodore Olson and David Boies. Under their bi-partisan leadership, the task force discovered just how badly our state courts are hurting financially.
According to the National Center for State Courts, which is working closely with the ABA on these issues, 40 out of 50 states cut court funding in fiscal year 2010. Budgetary cuts have continued in 2011 from New York to California. Some states, including Maine and Oregon, will need to find ways to operate without 10 percent of their already withered budgets. Remember, we are talking about a third co-equal branch of government. Yet across the United States we see that each and every state judiciary must try to operate on less than some individual departments in the executive branch.
Across this great nation, too, many of our judiciaries receive as little as 1 percent or less of the state budget pie, and few states receive more than 3 percent.
We know that at least six states, including Alabama, 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. Compounding the backlog of cases and consequent delay in our courts, 32 states have delayed filling much-needed court administration positions. Twenty-six states have delayed filling critical judicial vacancies. Like many government employees, staff in 16 states and judges in nine states are being furloughed without pay. Fourteen states have laid off judicial staff.
Still, other states around the country confront uniquely challenging circumstances.