Fair Courts E-lert: AL Courts Face Financial Crisis; WV Justice Benjamin Ruled Ineligible for Public Financing

March 11, 2016


Alabama Judge: Courts Facing Financial Crisis

“Alabama’s court system is facing a dire financial crisis,” with the potential to impact “crime victims, small business owners and individual citizens,” warns an Alabama judge writing for AL.com. According to Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Liles Burke – also the President of the Alabama Appellate Judges Association – appropriations to the judiciary have “gone down for the past 8 years, with the 2016 budget being several million dollars less than it was even in 2009.” Judge Burke explains that “[t]he only way that the judiciary has been able to operate within the monies prescribed for it is by eliminating personnel, increasing efficiencies through technology, and extraordinary efforts by court personnel.” Despite these measures, the courts and people are feeling the toll. Judge Burke laments, “[o]ur courts are now at a point where we have less than even the essential staff to maintain operations,” resulting in an incapacitated court system in which “[c]rime victims and their families agonize longer waiting for justice to be served,” and small businesses “cannot timely resolve open accounts and other business conflicts, thus stifling job creation.”


Judge Finds WV Justice Benjamin Ineligible for Public Financing

West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin is not eligible to receive public financing in his upcoming campaign for re-election to the state’s supreme court, a circuit judge ruled last week. In the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Kate White reports that Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman found Justice Benjamin’s campaign “missed deadlines for filing the application for certification and a report of exploratory campaign contributions.” “Strict adherence to deadlines related to political campaigning activity is paramount,” reads Judge Kaufman’s order, which reversed the State Election Commission’s (SEC) previous certification of the justice for public funding. According to the order, “SEC’s decision caused public campaign monies to be improperly injected into the campaign for Supreme Court” and “directly violated [the opposing candidate’s] constitutional rights to free speech and substantive due process.” Benjamin appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which appointed a panel of judges to hear the case “after all the Supreme Court justices recused themselves from hearing the appeal” writes the Associated Press. A hearing has been set for March 23.

NJ Lawmakers: Vacancy Battle Could “Create Chaos”

An escalation of the standoff between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) over a six-year vacancy on the state supreme court could lead to paralysis of the state court system, according to state lawmakers. Reporting for NJ.com, Brent Johnson writes that, “[l]ast week, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) declined to give a hearing to Christie’s latest nominee – Republican David Bauman, a state Superior Court judge from Monmouth County – to fill the final vacant seat on New Jersey’s highest court,” calling the nomination an effort to “pack” the bench with Republicans. According to Johnson, Christie “vowed ‘ramifications,’ promising to ‘do things that I haven’t done before.’” One possible response, Johnson writes, is for Christie to “refuse to re-nominate the 25 judges who are up for lifetime tenure from now until the end of the year.” “I certainly hope the governor does not resort to it,” State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) said. “It would create chaos and put terror into the hearts and minds of judges,” he added. Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) also disapproved of the idea, saying, “I don’t think [the judges] should be held hostage.”


CA Supreme Court Vows to Stream Arguments Online and Improve Access to Justice

As part of efforts to improve access and fairness in the California court system, the state supreme court will begin streaming oral arguments online, the state’s top judge said Tuesday in her annual state of the judiciary address. “Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told a joint session of the Legislature that the streaming is part of the court system’s effort to adapt following an economic downturn that brought a sharp drop in court funding,” reports Jonathan J. Cooper for the Associated Press. Cooper writes that Justice Cantil-Sakauye also focused “on addressing inequities in the judiciary to ensure it doesn’t perpetuate poverty,” including a call for further study of the state’s bail system. “We must not penalize the poor for being poor,” she said. Justice Cantil-Sakauye “questioned the reliance on court fines and fees to pay for government services,” writes Cooper, “saying it’s an inequity when a system created for accountability has been turned into a revenue stream for essential services.”