by Bill Robinson, American Bar Association
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.
For several years, the American Bar Association has identified a troubling trend in our state courts resulting from increasing workloads and declining budgets.
State judiciaries handle approximately 95 percent of all cases filed in the United States, according to the National Center for State Courts. In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, states reported 106 million incoming trial court cases—the most in 35 years. Anecdotally, we know that trend has continued as more people represent themselves and legislators add more laws to the books.
Despite those caseload increases, NCSC says 42 states reduced their court budgets in fiscal year 2011.
Courts around the country have had to make difficult decisions. New York’s courts end promptly at 4:30 in the afternoon to avoid overtime costs. Massachusetts has lost more than 1,100 trial court employees through attrition to save money. The lines at courts in Sacramento, California are so long that people bring lawn chairs to use while they wait.
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: when a parent petitions for custody of a child or when a family fights foreclosure of its home.
The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just 1 percent of a state’s entire budget—that’s often less than a state allocates for an executive branch agency.
Members of the legal community are beginning to understand this situation.
Courts are doing their part to demonstrate efficiency and innovation. The expanded use of video conferencing in Pennsylvania, for example, has saved taxpayers an estimated $21 million annually in defendant transportation costs.
The ABA is continuing the work of its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, bringing together those affected by this crisis to discuss strategies to help our judiciary. The task force has created a venue to share court funding stories and creative ideas on its website at americanbar.org.
The ABA is also 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 theUnited 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 decriminalize minor offenses, utilize pretrial release, and implement effective re-entry programs, among other reforms.
Finally, we must articulate what courts do and why they are so essential by more effectively educating legislators and the general public—especially young people, because that civic knowledge will drive a renewed dedication to the preservation of our justice system.
Courts must be open, available and adequately staffed. No one would accept closing the local emergency room, or the local fire house or the local police station for one day a week. Our justice system is no different. Let’s join together to fight for this access, otherwise … No courts. No justice. No freedom.
WM. T. (BILL) ROBINSON III The author is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.