Using Inherent Judicial Power in a State-Level Budget Dispute

Article excerpt


State courts are in financial crisis. Since the mid-1990s, state legislatures have allowed funding for their judicial systems to stagnate or dwindle. With diminished resources, state courts have struggled to provide adequate access to justice and dispute resolution. The solution to this crisis may lie in the doctrine of inherent judicial power. Courts have historically used inherent power to request additional funds from local legislative bodies for discrete expenditures. The use of inherent power to challenge the overall sufficiency of a judicial budget, however, has proven troubling. Under the current formulation of the inherent-power doctrine, a state court contesting the adequacy of a statewide judicial budget runs into two problems. First, by invoking its inherent power to compel additional funding, the court may usurp the appropriation power of the legislature. Second, state courts threaten their own legitimacy by taking a portion of the state budget out of the political process.

In response to these problems, this Note proposes a reformulation of the inherent-power doctrine. Specifically, state courts should invoke inherent power against a legislature only under a standard of absolute necessity to perform the duties required by federal and state constitutional law. This new standard limits the use of inherent power to situations that threaten the judiciary's ability to perform its constitutionally mandated functions. By cabining the permitted uses of inherent power, the standard respects the separation of powers and preserves the judiciary's public legitimacy.


On June 29, 2011, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb resigned from the Alabama Supreme Court, four-and-a-half years into her six-year term. (1) Among the reasons she offered for leaving office was the Alabama Legislature's "alarming reduction in funding" for the state's court system. (2) She noted that over the past ten years the legislature forced the court system to spend $66.3 million to meet new statutory demands while providing less than one third of that amount in additional funds. (3) Cobb's resignation was not the first time that she had publicly bemoaned the legislature's failure to fund the courts adequately. In April of that year she predicted "delays across the spectrum" after she drastically reduced the amount of time during which the state would conduct jury trials, closed all courthouses in the state to the public on Fridays, and fired hundreds of court employees. (4) After learning in May of a proposed budget that would cut an additional 8 percent from the judicial system, Cobb held a press conference asking voters to hold the legislature accountable for the cuts, contending that the "trial courts [could not] operate" on the reduced funds. (5) She also mentioned that the supreme court was considering suing the legislature to prevent the new round of budget reductions. (6) "That certainly would not be my preference," Cobb said of a potential lawsuit, "[but] we're not ruling that out." (7)

The financial condition of Alabama's judicial system is not unique. Since the mid-1990s, even during times of economic prosperity, state legislatures around the country have allowed funding for their judicial systems to stagnate or dwindle. (8) The recession that began in 2007, however, threatened to cause unprecedented damage to state court systems. As state revenues fell, legislatures looked to courts for additional savings. From 2008 to 2011, legislatures in most states cut judiciary spending by 10 to 15 percent. (9) The result was a dramatic reduction in court services. Including Alabama, at least fourteen states have reduced the hours and days that their courts are open to the public. (10) Litigants and defendants face lengthy delays before appearing on a court docket. Criminal cases in some states may take more than a year to clear, (11) and civil cases fare much worse. (12) State courts, which handle 95 percent of all litigation in the United States, (13) are struggling to provide the critical adjudicatory services that make up an effective justice system. …