Reduced court budgets place
justice and fair play at risk

By William T. (Bill) Robinson III

We all experience delays that slow down and frustrate our daily lives, from traffic jams on a city street to long lines at a grocery store. But some delays are more than an inconvenience — these delays threaten the very core of our constitutional democracy.

William T. Robinson IIIFor several years, the American Bar Association has observed a troubling trend in state court budgets. In fiscal year 2010, 40 states — including California — cut funding for their judiciaries. For 2011, California reduced spending on the courts by $350 million, part of a three-year trend that has wiped out 30 percent of the contribution from the state’s general fund.

These cuts are having effects, both big and small, on access to justice. In San Francisco, the Superior Court laid off 67 employees and will merge two self-help centers, even with a $2.5 million loan from the Administrative Office of the Courts. Kings County Superior Court is closing all of its courtrooms and clerks’ offices in three locations for one week in December. In Sacramento, Judge Steve White told The New York Times that people are bringing lawn chairs to the court because of the long wait for civil services.

Courts around the country are forced to make difficult decisions just as they did in California. New Hampshire delayed civil trials for a year. A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse. In Alabama, a judge asked the charitable arm of a local bar association to donate money to help pay juror stipends.

People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach the courtroom. If our legal system isn’t accessible, then it can’t be just and it won’t be fair.

The constitutional argument for sustainable funding for our courts is simple: the judiciary is a co-equal branch of government responsible for protecting our rights. The practical argument is equally compelling. The courts decide matters that go to the very core of our daily lives — like child custody cases — and protect us from threats to our safety.

The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just 1 percent of a state’s entire budget, and that’s often less than a state allocates for an executive branch agency. In California, the courts receive 2.4 percent of the budget pie to serve 38 million residents.

Members of the legal community are beginning to understand this situation. 

Courts are doing their part to demonstrate integrity, efficiency and innovation, including California. San Bernardino’s Superior Court has instituted an automated mail payment processing system and Orange County’s Superior Court has integrated all the court’s case management systems into one program, Electronic Legal File.

The ABA is continuing the work of its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, bringing those affected by this crisis together to discuss strategies to help our judiciary, and it has created a place to share court funding stories and creative ideas at http://bit.ly/mPjNoc.

But we need to go beyond our profession for solutions.

The ABA is working with state and local bar associations to rethink how to sensibly spend taxpayer dollars to ensure public safety. In 1974, about 175,000 people were incarcerated in state prisons in the United States. In 2010, that number had risen to 1.4 million, an increase of 705 percent. We can’t sustain the costs of a system where states spend, on average, $23,000 per inmate per year.

Then there’s the issue of the punishment fitting the crime. In some states, fish and game violations, dog leash violations and feeding the homeless are offenses punishable by time in jail. We need to de-criminalize minor offenses, utilize pretrial release and implement effective re-entry programs among other reforms.

We also must articulate what courts do and why they are important to legislators and to the general public, but especially to young people, because that civic knowledge will drive a renewed dedication to the preservation of our justice system. I am pleased to see Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is planning a civics education initiative to address this issue.

Even in times of extreme economic hardship, our courts need adequate financial support and essential resources to fulfill their constitutional responsibility. Let’s join together to fight for this access, otherwise . . . No courts. No justice. No freedom.

Robinson is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.