Ensuring Adequate Funding for the Courts

Article excerpt

To gain the necessary resources to fulfill its responsibilities, the judiciary must establish credibility with other branches of government and develop a broad base of support in the community.

In times of fiscal crisis, the tensions among the three branches of government become more pronounced. The depth and duration of the recent economic downturn have made courts particularly vulnerable. Court systems all over the country have experienced cuts, stemming from revenue reductions to state governments that have affected the capacity of those systems to deliver justice to the public. For example, in Alabama, 475 court positions were cut at the beginning of FY 2004. New Hampshire suspended jury trials for a month. Oregon closed its courts to the public on Fridays and prosecutors in that state were unable to bring lower level crimes to court.

The magnitude of the situation is most evident at the individual case level. During the four months when Oregon was unable to prosecute property crimes such as shoplifting and arson, one car thief was arrested and released three times in four days, and another was arrested seventeen times before finally being prosecuted. Nationally, court leaders have responded to the realities of the cuts and adopted policies that have attempted to minimize the impact.

The scope and impact of funding shortfalls over the last three years have varied from state to state and court to court. Some courts have suffered more than others, depending on their sources of funding. Nevertheless, all state courts have had to adopt strategies to deal with less revenue, with some courts drastically cutting services to the public. Not surprisingly, the strategies employed by courts to survive the recent economic downturn are not dissimilar to those taken during other recessions. Indeed, lessons can be learned about short-term and long-term budgetary strategies from looking at several of these past recessions.

The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) recently adopted principles specifically designed to help courts confront economic downturns and strengthen their ability to secure adequate resources in a political environment (see page 164). These principles encourage interbranch cooperation while at the same time upholding the values of an independent judiciary.

Our federal and state constitutions protect the judiciary's independent dispute resolution role from outside interference. However, the judiciary depends upon the public's representatives in the other branches of government for the resources it needs to operate the courts and enforce judgments. Lacking strong public constituencies or predictable funding mechanisms to help it function in the larger budgetary process, the judiciary is at a disadvantage in competition with executive branch agencies and special interests that have large or well-financed bases of support. Furthermore, with its principal activity being dispute resolution - the value of which is dependent upon its fairness and neutrality - the judiciary has little room to negotiate for favorable appropriations. As a result, the courts are particularly vulnerable at times when the government is experiencing fiscal crisis.

The judiciary has an obligation to be a good partner in government, including sharing in sacrifices when budgets are strained. Nevertheless, this obligation in no way detracts from the importance of providing the courts with adequate funding. Courts are service organizations whose expenses are overwhelmingly related to personnel. Large or prolonged cuts directly affect the courts' ability to carry out their constitutional role, reducing judicial services and severely restricting access to the courts. …