|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2007
We are entering a time of great opportunity in Oregon. Our economy is on the rebound. State revenues are rising. We again have a chance to invest in those things that make Oregon great — for our benefit and the benefit of future generations. I have three top priorities as the new legislature convenes in January: establishing an adequate and predictable funding system for our public education system, ensuring health care coverage for all children in Oregon, and making Oregon a center for the development of renewable energy. I have talked about these three issues a great deal over the last year and I intend to see this agenda implemented during my second term as governor.
Our rising economic tide provides other opportunities as well. I am writing to you, the members of the Oregon State Bar, to discuss one specific opportunity: addressing the long-deferred needs of Oregon’s judicial branch of government.
Oregon’s court system relies heavily on the state general fund. As we all know too well, the general fund is volatile. State agencies that rely on the general fund suffer the most during economic downturns. Since the 2002 special legislative sessions, Oregon’s justice system has been forced to do more work with fewer resources, and needed upgrades to the system have been deferred. At the depth of this crisis, our courts were reduced to four-day work weeks.
The budget for the 2007-09 biennium that the legislature will construct in the coming months provides an opportunity to begin the rebuilding of Oregon’s justice system and to invest in our often-neglected third branch of government. As a governor who has had the privilege to also serve as an Oregon Supreme Court justice and as attorney general, I understand that the rule of law is the glue that holds our democratic society together and that a robust, adequately funded state court system is essential to maintaining the rule of law. Now, we together must ensure that the legislature and the public understand that need.
The proposed 2007-09 budget that I transmitted to the legislature in December includes a significant increase in funding for the judicial branch. I am seeking 21 percent increases in general fund support over 2005-07 levels for both the Judicial Department and the Public Defense Services Commission. Funding at this level will provide an extra $17 million to the Judicial Department and an extra $11 million to the Public Defense Services Commission so that longstanding needs of both agencies can be addressed. Chief Justice Paul De Muniz has done an admirable job of detailing and explaining the serious issues confronting the judiciary today. We will have the resources in the coming years to address those issues, and my proposed budget is a step in that direction.
In particular, my proposed funding levels will allow us to deal with three of the most pressing needs facing Oregon’s judicial branch today: judicial salaries, indigent defense contract rates, and the court system’s outdated and inadequate information technology infrastructure.
It is always difficult to have a conversation with the public about salaries for professionals in state service. For most Oregonians, a $95,800 salary is a luxury they do not enjoy. Unfortunately, however, the salary we pay state court judges is simply uncompetitive nationally and in the state’s legal marketplace. Oregon now ranks 50th among the states in salary for trial court judges. First-year associates at some of Portland’s large law firms are better compensated than our most seasoned circuit court judges. It is becoming increasingly difficult to retain our best judges and to recruit top-notch lawyers (especially lawyers from the private sector) to the bench. Public service can never and should never be a road to riches. But we cannot allow the disparity between salaries in the public and private sectors to get so large that qualified lawyers and their families believe they cannot afford to consider a career on the bench. Chief Justice De Muniz will bring this issue to the forefront during the next legislative session, and I hope the bar will join him and engage in this very important conversation about the value of — and need for — the public service provided by members of the bench.
Indigent Defense Contract Rates
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, it has been the government’s constitutional obligation to provide legal representation to criminal defendants without the means to hire their own attorney. The Public Defense Services Commission contracts for the representation of indigent defendants. Hundreds of dedicated lawyers across Oregon perform this critical — and often unappreciated — public service. They are perhaps the most woefully underpaid component of our judicial system and are toiling under increasingly heavy caseloads to make ends meet. The current hourly rates for representation of indigent defendants are $40 an hour in non-capital cases and $55 an hour in death penalty cases. These rates have not changed since 1991, even as the complexity of cases has increased and the value of the dollar has greatly diminished. The criminal justice system will not function in a constitutional manner unless we provide a competent defense to indigent defendants. At these rates, it is increasingly difficult — and sometimes impossible — to find qualified lawyers willing to do the work. A criminal conviction is only as good as the constitutional adequacy of the accused’s defense counsel. It is critical that we provide adequate resources to the Public Defense Services Commission so these hourly rates can be increased — or we risk grave consequences to the criminal justice system as a whole.
Our judiciary needs to use available technology to make the court system more efficient and user-friendly. For instance, the Oregon Judicial Information Network (OJIN), the trial court case management system, was developed in the early 1980s and is barely held together today thanks to elbow grease and piecemeal fixes. A court system for Oregon in the 21st century should allow for the electronic filing of documents, Internet web access, document imaging and storage, and a new and effective case management system. The chief justice and the Oregon Judicial Department Technology Committee are spearheading this effort. I will work with them and with the legislature to make an adequate portion of the state’s debt capacity available to the Judicial Department so it can undertake these much-needed technology infrastructure improvements.
We cannot afford to defer the needs of our court system any longer. As members of the bar, we have a collective responsibility to assure that the judiciary is strong, supported and independent. We must make the necessary investments when times are good, or we will find ourselves in an even worse situation when times again become tight. I strongly encourage members of the Oregon State Bar to familiarize themselves with the needs of the judiciary and to join with the chief justice and others in seeking support for the judicial branch as I have proposed in my budget during this upcoming legislative session.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Theodore (Ted) R. Kulongoski has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 1970
© 2007 Theodore (Ted) R. Kulongoski