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February 6, 2012

Task Force Finds Court Underfunding Still a Crisis, Business Partnership an Opportunity

Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, co-chairs, Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System

Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, co-chairs, Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System

“We all accept the premise that one branch can’t kill the other off,” said Covington & Burling LLP partner Thomas Barnett—but politicians, judges and lawyers at the _’s Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System hearing cautioned that cuts to state court budgets are all but lethal.

The persistently lagging economy combined with meager tax receipts have left state and local government coffers depleted and every branch of government has to make due with less.  State judiciaries across the nation have been particularly hard hit.  South Carolina courts sustained deep cuts in fiscal years 2009-2010 that amounted to a 20 percent budget reduction, according to South Carolina State Rep. Jenny Horn.

William K. Weisenberg, co-vice chair, ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System

William K. Weisenberg, co-vice chair, ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System

Since its creation in 2010, the ABA task force has documented the withering of court budgets and identified consequences that limit access to, and the timeliness of, justice.  In Morrow County, Ohio, for example, a court announced that litigants must bring their own paper to court as there was no budget for basic office supplies.  More recently, California justices have warned that it may take up to five years to resolve a civil case.

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. offered an explanation of why state legislatures are seemingly so willing to make reductions that impact the public.  Before Sullivan ruled from Indiana’s highest court, he served as the state budget director from 1989 through 1992.  In that time, the Indiana judiciary’s budget was not on his “radar” because it constituted an “infinitesimal” part of the total state budget.

Curtis Child, director of Governmental Affairs at the California Administrative Office of the Courts argued that the courts “need to be in throwing elbows” with their legislatures.  Child conceded that “the problem is, [judges] are not that great at that.”

Paul Dacier, executive vice president and general counsel at EMC Corp

Paul Dacier, executive vice president and general counsel at EMC Corp

Minnesota State Court Administrator Sue Dosal echoed Child’s call to action, saying courts “have to help the legislature do [its] job.”  Facing a 10 percent cut in 2009, Minnesota courts warned policymakers that a host of offenses would go unprosecuted without adequate resources.  Those offenses included misdemeanors like underage drinking and shoplifting, and even property disputes and small civil claims.  In the home of Mall of America, the prospect of shoplifters skulking with impunity mobilized the business community.  Dosal was resolute, “Adequately funding the judicial system is not an option, it’s an obligation.”

Others agreed the businesses need to weigh in.  Paul Dacier, executive vice president and general counsel of EMC Corp. related that in discussions with appropriators, arguments about the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary often produces a “glassy-eyed look.”  Dacier argued that “we need more businesses and CEOs to raise that this is important to keep our competitive edge.”

Ohio state Sen. Keith Faber went so far as to call advocacy from the business community a “golden ticket.”

Task force co-chair Theodore B. Olson closed the hearing by saying that he felt significant progress had been made by the ABA group, but summed up the sense of most in the room by adding, “We are a long ways from the end of the line.”

See video to hear more from Boies and Olson on the court underfunding crisis.

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Learn More About:  Access to JusticeMidyear Meeting 2012

Comments (5)

  • *Pingback*
    12:00 PM February 6, 2012
    This Post Referenced in: The AOC doesn’t represent me « Judicial Council Watcher

    ... AOC’s Curtis Child – We need to be throwing elbows at legislators (Further reason for distancing yourself from the AOC) ...

  • RS Allen
    4:10 PM February 11, 2012

    I personally think this country is missing a huge funding source for the courts that will serve a dual purpose: income based fines for ordinance and traffic violations. Those purposes are:

    1) Basing fines and court fees on a percentage of an individual’s previous tax-year’s taxable income will increase cash flow into the system. Everybody from the poorest to the richest get traffic tickets and other ordinance violation citations. Just go to the high dollar seats at a football game sometime and watch all the drunks that get dragged out and cited.

    2) It will create a more equalized system of fining that will actually punish higher income offenders rather than just inconvenience them. For example,a $100 fine to a guy earning minimum wage means he and his family may well go without food for a few days. To a person making $100k/year, he or she may have to give up a night on the town.

    An income based system of fines and fees will serve to punish everybody equally and will create cash flow for the courts. It’s at least worth a try.

  • Michael Paul
    1:47 PM February 12, 2012

    I do too and I’ll tell you why. Well before Steve Jobs (RIP – a visionary) had medical or disability issues he parked in handicapped spaces “because he could afford to” (using his own words from an old magazine interview)

    Paying a 500 dollar ticket for parking in a handicapped zone to Steve was akin to paying the parking meter for the rest of us.

    What you propose is done in certain European countries already.

  • *Pingback*
    4:55 AM February 15, 2012
    This Post Referenced in: Gavel Grab » Court Funding Crisis a Troubling Theme at ABA Conference

    ... to be in throwing elbows” with their legislatures, on behalf of adequate funding, according to an ABANow.org account of the ...

  • Paul Stanley
    8:54 PM February 18, 2012

    I find all of this rich. As a rock star, I think it is not fair to fine the rich guy more. Lets be clear, civil servants eat up 80%-95% of the Judiciary budgets. Programs only 5%. So for the Bar and Judges to cry foul that their inefficient system is being cut is like the pigs crying foul over less slop. By the way my wife put me onto this site, she is the lawyer in the family.