Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2012
Board Report
Standing at a Crossroads:
(The OSB's Recent Legislative Efforts
By Steve Larson

With Oregon’s 2012 legislative session behind us, it’s a good time to look back at where we’ve been and ahead to where we’re going in the bar’s ongoing efforts to support the justice system. The short version is that the courts emerged from the session bent but not broken, and that we have work to do in preparation for 2013.

As the session approached, the bar joined with a coalition of businesses, financial institutions, the Multnomah Bar Association and others who depend on the courts to advocate for adequate court funding. More specifically, the coalition promoted restoration of 3.5 percent of the court’s 2011-2013 budget. That amount had been held back at the end of the 2011 session as a supplemental fund to balance the state’s budget in case revenue projections declined after the session adjourned. Without restoration of this $11.5 million, courts would be facing further cuts in services on top of severe reductions made in previous budget cycles.

The situation was bleak. Going into the 2012 session, projected general fund revenue was already $304 million below what had been predicted at the close of the 2011 session, and the judicial branch was far from the only part of state government facing a significant budget reduction. Most executive department agencies and the legislative branch were facing budget cuts as well.

Ultimately, the judicial branch received a restoration of a bit more than a third of the amount held back for court operating expenses, with the opportunity to return to the Emergency Board to request additional funds in May. Failure to secure full restoration of the funds wasdisappointing, because the courts will have to make further operational cuts, which will have a direct impact on practicing lawyers and their clients and on judges and court staff.On the other hand, without the coalition’s advocacy, it is doubtful thatthe courts wouldhave had any money restored.

The restoration of operating funds was not the whole story. In addition, the legislature:

• Continued support for the Oregon eCourt project. The legislature appreciates the significant efficiencies and seems satisfied that this project is adequately managed, and it appropriated money for additional bonding authority and debt service. Multnomah County Presiding Judge Nan Waller and Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point), House co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, wereinstrumental in this process. The bond proceeds will allow full implementation of the program in Yamhill County Circuit Court in June 2012, followed by other early adopter courts in Jefferson and Crook, Linn, Jackson and Multnomah counties.Oregon eCourt promises to help the judicial branch to manage its workload with fewer staff.

• Thanks again to the efforts of Judge Waller, Multnomah County was also successful in getting authority to use partof its funding for mediation, conciliation and law library services to purchase furniture and equipment for the new East Multnomah County Courthouse, which opened in April. Rep. Wally Hicks (R-Grants Pass) championed this effort, with help from Rep. Matt Wand (R-Troutdale).

• The legislature also authorized the judicial branch to spend various grants received for specialty courts, like drug courts.

• Finally, the legislature created a new three judge panel on the Court of Appeals, effective Oct. 1, 2013. This does not require an appropriation until the 2013 session, but passage of the bill shows legislative support for Oregon’s intermediate appellate court, which is one of the busiest in the nation.

All of the lawyer legislators deserve our thanks for their support for the judicial branch, but several stand out. In addition to his work on funding for the East County Courthouse,Rep. Hicks played a central role in all deliberations concerning court funding as a member of the Ways and Means subcommittee with jurisdiction over the judicial branch budget, and he deserves great credit for the improvements in the judicial branch budget that was ultimately passed. Though not on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Chris Garrett (D-Lake Oswego) and Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-parts of Lane and Douglas counties) played crucial roles in persuading colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support the judicial branch as a core government function and were champion supporters of the courts in the House Judiciary Committee.

Another group that was particularly helpful in supporting the judicial branch budget was the Oregon Business Association (OBA), which mobilized its members to contact legislators about the importance of a functioning court system. It is the commitment of groups like the OBA that will ultimately show legislators that court funding is of interest broadly to all Oregonians, and not just to lawyers and judges.

Within the legal community, the Multnomah Bar Association and chair Steve Blackhurst generated support for court funding in the Metro area, as did the efforts of the Managing Partner Roundtable, led by Ed Harnden and Peter Bragdon.

Looking ahead, all we can say with certainty is that our work is not done. All state agencies, in addition to the judicial branch, have been cut to the bone over the last few years. If and when the economy improves, there will be many competing for a share of the increased revenue.

The StableCourt Funding Initiativethat the bar organized in advance of the 2012 session was a good start in beginning the broad based, sustained advocacy our circumstances call for. Both outgoing Chief Justice Paul De Muniz and incoming Chief Justice Tom Balmer have encouraged building this coalition and stand ready to support our efforts in whatever ways are appropriate. In addition to the OBA, the Oregon State Bar, the MBA and the Managing Partners Roundtable, the coalition included the Oregon Association of Defense Counsel, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, Associated Oregon Industries, the Oregon Bankers Association and the Oregon Collectors Association. We need to think broadly about other potential allies to bring into this coalition — groups with interests in the court system that are willing to spend time, effort and political influence to increase state support for this core function of Oregon’s government. If you’re interested in helping to gear up this initiative for 2013, please contact me.

Finally, we need to encourage members of the bar to develop relationships with their legislators and to talk with them about the importance of a fully functioning court system in maintaining public safety and encouraging economic development in their communities. As Chief Justice De Muniz observed in his 2011 State of the Courts address, the courts stand at the crossroads of every significant social and economic issue facing the citizens of our state. With so much on the line, we owe it to ourselves, our profession and our communities to ensure that this crossroads is not an over-burdened four-way stop.

Steve Larson is chair of the Board of Governors’ Public Affairs Committee for the 2012 legislative session. Reach him at slarson@ssbls.com.

© 2012 Steve Larson

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