Court Funding

You won’t find the Judges’ Journal on any newstands, but the Summer 2004 issue headlined “Justice in Jeopardy: The State Court Funding Crisis” will affect you more than most of the magazines that are so posted. State court budgets all over the country are being cut, which means reduced services and longer delays for trials for injured or violated people and small businesses who cannot wait.

The reductions are so severe that courts are increasing fees to users and thinking of other ways to pass the tin cup for contributions. Higher court fees obstruct access to the courts by lower income citizens.

New Hampshire suspended civil jury trials for a few months while Oregon went to the extreme of closing its courts to the public on Fridays.

The Journal writes: “Cuts to crisis centers in Minnesota mean that victims of domestic violence get less help navigating the sometimes confusing legal system.” For four months Oregon was unable to prosecute property crimes such as arson and car theft.

In Rochester, New York, cuts in the budget of the Public Interest Law Office led to 200 low-income residents being denied help to resolve legal problems such as securing “supplemental security income benefits for people with disabilities and preserving the homes of low-income debtors victimized by predatory lenders.”

A majority of state courts are funded from state income and sales taxes while the rest draw on property taxes. The Journal contained warnings that the very independence of the judiciary can be compromised when the other two branches — legislative and executive — gang up on the courts’ budget. Judges are hampered by judicial ethics and tradition from slugging itout with their budget cutters, leaving them mostly defenseless. And courts are not known to have powerful citizen lobbies to support the services they provide.

Considered against the background of how your tax dollars are spent, misspent, wasted and used against you at the local state and national governmental levels, the plight of the courts demonstrates the neglect and deterioration of our democratic institutions.

Our founding fathers and the colonial patriots before them fought to defend their right to use the courts, to have a trial by a jury of their peers. This complaint against King George III was a number two on the list after “no taxation with representation.”

In the very cities where the courts are located, there are billions of taxpayer dollars poured into gleaming stadiums, arenas, ballparks and galleries. But the courts are required to ration justice — the antithesis of democracy as Judge Learned Hand wrote years ago — for lack of tax dollars.

Courts are supposed to meet standards of accessibility, timeliness, equality, fairness and integrity. This requires in the Journal’s words “sound administration of justice.” This in turn requires good people running and judging in the courts. But it also requires money

When courts have to shorten hours, reduce juror pay and funding for interpreters, cut back on security, and cut back on office staff, justice is impaired. Suspension of jury trials, less funding for public defense counsel results in what happened in Oregon. The Journal writes that in that state “nonviolent criminal cases were not heard for nearly a year if the defendant required counsel at public expense. In Virginia, the prosecution of domestic violence cases was delayed.”

The authors of these articles noted one upside to tighter budgets, greater emphasis on “efficiency, accountability and revenue enhancement.” By the latter words “revenue enhancement,” they meant, I gather, keeping more of the fines and other revenue they collect.

The authors of this collection could have strengthened their case by a chart showing what percentage of the overall state budget goes to the courts in the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Pause and see if you can guess.

The Empire State — loaded with wealthy corporate executives, lawyers and power brokers — provides just 1.5 percent of the overall state budget for its courts. The chief administrative judge of New York’s court system, Judge Jonathan Lippman, drives his point home in another way: “Consider the post-September 11 security measures in New York now costing the judiciary about $300 million annually, roughly 20 percent of all spending.”

Forty years ago, court budgets were larger than prison budgets. Now in almost all the states, the prison budgets are much larger than the court budgets. Maybe the courts should stop sending non-violent drug addicts to jail and assign them to rehabilitation as one judge is doing in upstate New York.

A rational society will want to fill the courts with justice seekers instead of filling the prisons with drug addicts who need help at far less expensive levels than their being maintained in jail cells.

To obtain a copy of the “Justice in Jeopardy” report visit : http://www.abanet.org/judind/home.html. 

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