Surviving the Storm

Judicature, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Surviving the Storm


The 2008 recession changed the funding landscape for the states' judiciaries. Regaining pre-recession funding levels requires court leaders to advocate continually before the public and the legislatures.

As any coastal resident can confirm, merely surviving the storm does not return the shoreline to its prior configuration. Water and wind inevitably leave a shifted landscape after they subside. The same principle applies as state court systems across the country survey a new budget landscape created by the 2008 recession and its aftermath. Recognizing the changed contours of this new landscape is crucial as courts and legislatures contemplate the need for adequate state court funding in 2013 and beyond.

The budgetary storm visited on state governments and their courts during recent funding cycles was intense. According to the National Center for State Courts, by 2011 at least 43 states faced budget restrictions in the operation of their courts. Some state court systems, including those in California and New York, have been hit especially hard as cash-strapped state and local governments reduced court funding. In a third of the states, court leaders addressed these constraints by reducing court operating hours; closing courts for one day a month; or imposing staff furloughs. Courts in nearly a third of the states are operating with fewer trial court and central office staff, leading to backlogs and delays in case processing.

A 2012 survey of the Conference of State Court Administrators points to somewhat better budget news for 2013 and beyond. According to this survey, 38 state court administrative offices said their budgets for fiscal year 2013 have increased or stayed the same; seven others reported decreases. The court budget situation is anticipated to stay the same or improve in 39 states over the next three years. But stability and improvement are relative concepts. Recession-driven budgets have left many state courts facing hollowedout infrastructures. Bringing state court funding back to pre-recession levels may take a decade.

This is one aspect of the postrecession budgetary landscape, and it leads to this conclusion: Repairing the damage done to state court budgets and services cannot be accomplished by accepting a "new normal" level of funding that fails to address past erosion. A second aspect of the new landscape also merits particular attention, and it relates to how the dialogue over state court budgets will unfold nationwide in the coming years. Judges and administrators must recognize that public perceptions of court funding do not necessarily mesh with the views of court professionals who know the nuts and bolts from the inside.

The facts discussed above are compelling, right? No one could fail to appreciate the need for adequate state court funding, right? Courts obviously are entitled to their share of available state budget monies because they are a coequal branch of government, right?

Think again. If you believe that the importance of state court funding is self-evident, then you probably work in the court system. Views held by voters and other stakeholders outside of the court system are more skeptical. …

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