An Impending Crisis in State Court Funding

Article excerpt

We need to begin a national discussion on how best to assure adequate and stable financing of courts, particularly in times of economic recession.

Our state courts have made enormous strides in recent times to improve the delivery of prompt, affordable, fair, and effective results to a society that relies heavily on its legal system. Judges and judicial systems have conceived and implemented innovations to better cope with drug offenses, illegal use of guns, family dissolutions, and case and jury management. We have learned how to make courts more user-friendly for self-represented people, and thus how to assure that justice is accessible for millions who might otherwise simply give up on the legal system. We know how to train judges to ensure procedural fairness and we know how to improve court technology. E-filing is no longer a fantasy.

But having good ideas isn't enough. In order to implement these innovations more broadly, adequate and stable funding is critically needed but is not available in too many states. This is an impending national crisis that demands strong state leadership and a concerted, thoughtful national debate.

From Hawaii to New York state budgets are hemorrhaging. According to the National Center for State Courts, a minimum of 14 states are projected to face up to a 10 percent budget reduction this coming year. The economy is in dire straits and that spells trouble for many courts. Twenty-nine states project a combined budgetary shortfall of $48 billion. Analysts in Texas, Missouri, and Washington, among others, are projecting budget deficits a little further down the road. One quick and easy "fix" is to cut appropriations to state courts. The courts that are not fully state funded are just as vulnerable because the projections of the fiscal crisis are equally bleak for counties.

Bad economic conditions put more strain on the courts. There are more debt collections. Unemployment, reduced bonuses, or lack of overtime lead responsible parents to seek adjustment to child support, and lead irresponsible parents to join the ranks of "deadbeat parents." This leads to more litigation. Economic stress will not destroy healthy marriages, but it can be the final straw that drives couples to divorce court. A decade ago family court judges divided assets. Today the fight is about dividing debt, which makes resolution even more problematic and litigious. What is driving the demise of Wall Street is the collapse of the housing market. Every one of those home foreclosures was processed through a state court, which has resulted in additional stress on court systems, and yet no additional resources have been made available for courts to cope with the extra burden.

The National Center for State Courts reports that 31 percent of the court administrators surveyed rated their state's current appropriations as inadequate and that was before any further budget reduction. …