Task Force Finds Court Underfunding Still a Crisis, Business Partnership an Opportunity
“We all accept the premise that one branch can’t kill the other off,” said Covington & Burling LLP partner Thomas Barnett—but politicians, judges and lawyers at the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System hearing cautioned that cuts to state court budgets are all but lethal.
The persistently lagging economy combined with meager tax receipts have left state and local government coffers depleted and every branch of government has to make due with less. State judiciaries across the nation have been particularly hard hit. South Carolina courts sustained deep cuts in fiscal years 2009-2010 that amounted to a 20 percent budget reduction, according to South Carolina State Rep. Jenny Horn.
Since its creation in 2010, the ABA task force has documented the withering of court budgets and identified consequences that limit access to, and the timeliness of, justice. In Morrow County, Ohio, for example, a court announced that litigants must bring their own paper to court as there was no budget for basic office supplies. More recently, California justices have warned that it may take up to five years to resolve a civil case.
Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. offered an explanation of why state legislatures are seemingly so willing to make reductions that impact the public. Before Sullivan ruled from Indiana’s highest court, he served as the state budget director from 1989 through 1992. In that time, the Indiana judiciary’s budget was not on his “radar” because it constituted an “infinitesimal” part of the total state budget.
Curtis Child, director of Governmental Affairs at the California Administrative Office of the Courts argued that the courts “need to be in throwing elbows” with their legislatures. Child conceded that “the problem is, [judges] are not that great at that.”
Minnesota State Court Administrator Sue Dosal echoed Child’s call to action, saying courts “have to help the legislature do [its] job.” Facing a 10 percent cut in 2009, Minnesota courts warned policymakers that a host of offenses would go unprosecuted without adequate resources. Those offenses included misdemeanors like underage drinking and shoplifting, and even property disputes and small civil claims. In the home of Mall of America, the prospect of shoplifters skulking with impunity mobilized the business community. Dosal was resolute, “Adequately funding the judicial system is not an option, it’s an obligation.”
Others agreed the businesses need to weigh in. Paul Dacier, executive vice president and general counsel of EMC Corp. related that in discussions with appropriators, arguments about the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary often produces a “glassy-eyed look.” Dacier argued that “we need more businesses and CEOs to raise that this is important to keep our competitive edge.”
Ohio state Sen. Keith Faber went so far as to call advocacy from the business community a “golden ticket.”
Task force co-chair Theodore B. Olson closed the hearing by saying that he felt significant progress had been made by the ABA group, but summed up the sense of most in the room by adding, “We are a long ways from the end of the line.”