America’s Judiciary: Courting Disaster

Severe budget cuts are coming at precisely the time when courts desperately need more, not fewer, resources.

July 8, 2011

Published in the Los Angeles Times.

Denouncing a proposal to cut $150 million out of a courts budget that has already absorbed a $200-million reduction, California's chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, recently warned that the "devastating and crippling" cuts would "threaten access to justice for all."

California's not alone. Last month, 350 court employees in New York were laid off to offset $170 million in cuts to the state judiciary's budget. Remarkably, 65 dismissed part-time judges continued to work as volunteers to ensure that the courts' indispensable work wouldn't grind to a halt.

It is inexcusable, not to mention unsustainable, when an institution vital to our democracy must depend on former employees to work as volunteers — or simply lock the courthouse door.

But this is happening nationwide. According to the National Center for State Courts, 32 states experienced judicial budget reductions in fiscal year 2010 and 28 others saw reductions in fiscal year 2011. These cuts will continue, and in some cases accelerate, in fiscal year 2012. Strapped for cash, courts have reduced hours of operation, fired staff, frozen salaries and hiring, increased filing fees, diverted resources from civil trials — which in some cases suspended jury trials — and, in the worst cases, closed courts entirely.

Iowa's court system today is operating with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987 — even though, in the same period, the total number of cases in Iowa courts has doubled.

Unless officials in Jefferson County, Ala., secure additional resources, security officer layoffs will force the closing of or the limiting of public access to all but one of five courthouses by July 15. Judge Scott Vowell, the presiding judge in Jefferson County, says the courts are "essentially shutting down because they will be too dangerous to operate" without adequate security. Vowell explained that the courts hoped to stay open by using volunteer off-duty police, but because of inadequate resources to coordinate off-duty officers, even that emergency option was off the table.

These cuts are coming at precisely the time when courts desperately need more, not fewer, resources. State courts confront elevated numbers of foreclosure filings, consumer debt proceedings and domestic violence cases — all of which rise in tough economic times.

Unlike other government agencies, courts cannot simply cut some services; they have a constitutional duty to resolve criminal and civil cases. And because about 90% of court budgets go to personnel costs, cutting staff is the only way for courts to absorb reductions. Eliminating judicial employees means that some citizens looking to the courts for justice will walk away empty-handed.

The long-term implications are particularly alarming. A study of the economic impact of court cuts in Los Angeles County concluded that from 2010 to 2013, the county and state would suffer estimated losses of more than $30 billion from a combination of lost jobs, lost payroll taxes from laid-off court and legal service personnel, a decline in legal services revenues and uncertainty among litigants. The study said cuts aimed at short-term savings will have negative and "long-term structural consequences for the Los Angeles and California economies."

In Georgia, a similar study came to much the same conclusion. In Florida, business leaders are warning that the court funding crisis is still threatening the state's economy, even after Florida's courts were rescued at the eleventh hour when Gov. Rick Scott authorized emergency loan funds to prevent widespread court blackout days.

"Failing to fund our courts is like failing to repair our bridges," said David Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice. "Disaster becomes inevitable — just a matter of time."

Of course, court administrators must actively pursue cost-saving practices. But courts are the foundation for the rule of law on which the well-being of our democracy depends. As a result, when policymakers debate budget proposals, they must provide courts with resources sufficient to preserve the ability to deliver justice.

"Justice for all" cannot be a bargaining chip traded away during tough economic times.