Justice on a Shoestring Budget

October 25, 2011
Guest Post

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. 

A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse. The court simply had no money for office supplies.  This is a recurring theme across the country. In Georgia, the budget is so lean that courts solicit pen and pencil donations from vendors like LexisNexis and Westlaw. A local bar association in North Carolina ran an office supply drive to collect paper and copier toner because shortages meant that parties could not exchange documentation, even in serious criminal cases.  

In Alabama, a judge asked the charitable arm of a local bar association to donate money to the court to help pay juror stipends.

Right now, California courts are reeling from the additional elimination of $350 million from the state’s judiciary budget, the largest reduction in California’s history. It now looks like San Francisco will receive a supplemental infusion of cash, but the city announced last month that it still must close 25 of 63 courtrooms, while giving pink slips to 40 percent of the court staff. 

A recent story in The New York Times explained how stressed and overburdened San Francisco courts have already become. The lines there are often so long that people are actually bringing lawn chairs to use while they wait.

One of the more distressing stories the task force heard came from New Hampshire, where depleted court financial resources were so strained that the resulting case backlog forced the suspension of all civil trials by then-Chief Justice Broderick for an entire year. Lawyers are fond of the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied.” Well, in New Hampshire, justice was denied for a year because of inadequate financial support for the courts there.

Our system of justice is simply too fundamental to our way of life to allow it to wither. Whether our neighbors are seeking the judgment of the court in a child custody case, a business dispute or for the protection of fundamental rights under the law, justice cannot wait. 

Courts simply must be open, available and adequately staffed. No one would accept closing one day a week the local emergency room, or the local fire house or the local police station. Our justice system is no different. Our courts protect lives. It is time to stand up for our courts, so that they can protect us.

Otherwise: No courts. No justice. No freedom.