|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2012|
By Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III
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.
Yet NCSC says 32 states reduced their court budgets in fiscal year 2010, and cuts have continued from Hawaii to Maine in 2011. Though Oregon’s budget has remained constant in 2010 and 2011, the courts have experienced their share of unpaid staff furloughs, vacancies and reduced public hours.
Judgments and warrants are taking longer to process, and those delays can cause unintended consequences, according to Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz, who discussed the issue in a speech earlier this year. For example, people can be mistakenly arrested for warrants that have not been removed from the system.
In Oregon courts, as in others around the country, administrators have made difficult decisions about how to deliver justice with fewer resources. New Hampshire delayed civil trials for a year. Alabama closes its courts on Fridays. A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse.
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, such as when a parent petitions for custody of a child or when a family fights foreclosure of their home.
The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just one percent of a state’s entire budget — that’s often less than a state allocates for an executive branch agency. In Oregon, the courts receive 2.3 percent of the budget pie to serve more than 3.4 million residents.
Courts are doing their part to demonstrate efficiency and innovation, including those in Oregon. In several courts, the state has implemented the Oregon eCourt program, which provides more access to services online — including information about specific cases, jury and financial management, ePayments, as well as decision support systems. The judicial branch also established the Court Re-engineering and Efficiencies Workgroup to find ways to increase its ability to provide more services at a lower cost.
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 at http://bit.ly/mPjNoc.
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 the United States. In 2010, that number had risen to 1.4 million, an increase of 705 percent.
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 should 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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd.
© 2012 Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III