Sunday, November 29, 2009

State Courts in Crisis

The New York Times ran an editorial on November 25 featuring a speech by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall to the City Bar of New York. It will not come as a surprise to many readers of OOTJ that state courts have had their budgets slashed, but the editorial does an admirable job of surveying the nation, drawing a grim picture, indeed, of what state budget cuts have done. The courts, say Justice Marshall, are at the "tipping point of dysfunction." The editorial continues:

in too many cases, the cuts are already impeding core court functions, forcing court closures, shortened court hours and a tangible narrowing of access to justice.

New Hampshire, for example, suspended civil and criminal jury trials in 8 of 10 county courts for one month each between last December and June. In California, state courthouses are closed for business on the third Wednesday of every month. Iowa is planning to close all state courts for several days before the state’s fiscal year ends on June 30.

More than two dozen states have imposed court hiring freezes, and 11 states have put staff on unpaid furloughs of varying length, according to the National Center for State Courts. Court staff, including clerks, court interpreters and security personnel, have been eliminated or reduced. In a financially driven loosening of security in Maine, for instance, magnetic security machines at local courthouses are no longer regularly manned. In Alabama, says the immediate past president of the Alabama Bar Association, Mark White, fiscally driven “compromises in service and security are creating a situation ripe for disaster.”

In Georgia, it can take 60 days to hold a hearing in a temporary custody case that used to take just a few weeks. In other states as well, spending cuts have led to fewer court dates available for hearing and trials, creating a growing backlog of cases. With priority given to serious criminal matters, there is a looming threat to the civil justice system, and its ability to vindicate people’s rights, and to foster economic growth and stability by enforcing business contracts in a timely manner.

The brunt of the budget cuts has fallen on the high-volume courts hearing family and juvenile matters, misdemeanors and small-claims disputes, notes the American Bar Association. Some of society’s most vulnerable people, including battered women, abused and neglected children and victims of vandalism and petty theft, turn to these courts for protection and justice.

There are factors apart from budget problems undermining the vitality of state courts, not least the advent of expensive judicial election and retention campaigns fueled by special interest money. And no one, including Chief Justice Marshall, suggests that state courts should be spared from having to share the burden at a time when cuts to health care and public education are under consideration in nearly every jurisdiction.

But, at some point, slashing state court financing jeopardizes something beyond basic fairness, public safety and even the rule of law. It weakens democracy itself.
In a press release dated July, 7, 2009, the National Center for State Courts issued the results of a survey showing that all states' and territories' 2010 budgets slashed the budgets for courts. Court administrators were responding by considering hiring freezes, consolidation, changes in venue and jurisdiction rules, and use of technology to increase efficiency.
The survey of 54 states and territories found that for Fiscal Year 2010, courts in 27 states have had their budgets reduced, and 12 additional states are anticipating budgets cuts in coming weeks as their Legislatures finalize 2010 state budgets. Ten state court systems have had their budgets reduced by at least 5 percent. To review the survey results state, go to

“The national recession is having a profound impact on how Americans gain access to justice,” said Stephanie Cole, Administrative Director of the Alaska State Courts and president of COSCA.

With state revenues in a free fall, the NCSC and COSCA conducted the survey to learn how state courts are coping with, and planning for, the potential of the most severe budget cuts in decades.

Budget cuts are taking shape in a variety of ways:

* 28 state courts have imposed hiring freezes. 13 state courts have frozen salaries
* Seven states have encouraged judges and staff to accept salary reductions – or have imposed salary reductions
* Six states have mandated furloughs of court staff
* Six states have reduced court hours.

A glimpse of what courts across the country are experiencing: In Delaware courts placed a hiring freeze on all positions except security; Florida courts have laid off 280 employees, out of its 3,100 person workforce; Minnesota has cut court hours and public counters are closed a half day each week in some districts; Iowa is considering reducing administrative districts, merging internal court operations and creating more flexibility in allocating judges; in Nevada the Governor has recommended cutting employee salaries by 6 percent, eliminating merit increases and requiring all employees take 12 furlough days a year.
But of course, as in Massachusetts, state budgets are being trimmed continually through the year, as governors see revenues in freefall during a profound recession. So searching the Internet for the phrase turns up many news stories around the country of new budget cuts and crises in state courts resulting from the new budget cuts. I thought the Times editorial was a powerful statement. It's a terrible thing to choose between fabulously deserving and needy administrative agencies in budget allocations. But this was a very powerful statement. Of course, libraries are another important group that are more needed by the population at large as the economy tanks. And all the social service agencies can make the same claims, I suppose, as well as police, fire and hospital, ambulance, basic infrastructure maintenance.... I guess it all goes on and on. I am glad I am not in charge of budget allocation in any state!

This decoration of Themis holding the scales of justice is from the FBI website at

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