Budgeting for State Courts: The Perceptions of Key Officials regarding the Determinants of Budget Success*

By Hartley, Roger E.; Douglas, James W. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Budgeting for State Courts: The Perceptions of Key Officials regarding the Determinants of Budget Success*


Hartley, Roger E., Douglas, James W., Justice System Journal


While much has been made of the financial crisis affecting state courts in the early 2000s, there has been little research on court budgeting and the politics that affect it, especially concerning factors that lead to budgetary success. In this study, we assess the determinants of budget success for state courts by examining the perceptions of key state budget actors. We argue that courts tend to behave conservatively in the budget process and may need to behave more politically. Behaving acquisitively, providing realistic requests, and justifying funding needs will enable courts to increase funding in the short-term. In the long-term, courts should act more aggressively to improve relations with legislative and executive branch officials.

The judicial branch is considered the referee of the American legal system. The courts are constitutionally recognized as having the independent power to interpret law, which includes determining the legality and breadth of statutes, the extent to which laws are being implemented properly, the guilt or innocence of those accused of violating laws, and the consequences of legal violations. To carry out these legal responsibilities, the judiciary was established as a separate branch and insulated from undue political influence to have the freedom to protect the rights of individuals and organizations against advances of government power.

Adequate administrative capacity is necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the branch and its independence. However, even when executive and legislative officials respect judicial independence, the political nature of the budgetary process works against courts. The judiciary must rely on the other branches of government for its funding and may be at a disadvantage when competing for resources because it does not command the same political attention that public agencies do. Additionally, courts may be constrained from behaving aggressively in the budget process because of fears that the branch might appear too political. This places the judicial branch in a "catch 22" since courts must behave politically to be successful in the process.

Despite the importance of funding to the operation of courts, there has been little research identifying the factors important to budgetary success. In this article, we examine what we know about budgetary success from both the public-law and public-budgeting literatures. We then report survey results where key budget officials in the states evaluate the importance of several factors to budget success for the courts.

Literature Review

As stated above, few studies have explored the determinants of judicial success during the appropriations process. However, a considerable amount of research has examined the factors associated with budget success for executive branch agencies. This research provides clues as to what factors might be important for judicial success. Ira Sharkansky (1968) analyzed agency budget success in state legislatures. His work evaluated the impacts of gubernatorial support and agency acquisitiveness (the practice of asking for large increases) on agency budget expansion over time. He found that governors play a major role in determining how much funding an agency receives during the appropriations process. Sharkansky also found that agency acquisitiveness had a positive impact upon budget expansion. He revealed that "[t]he legislature is most likely to trim the budgets of agencies that ask for large increases, but it is only these acquisitive agencies that can hope for a large increase to remain after the legislature has acted" (Sharkansky, 1968:1225). According to Sharkansky, agencies that ask for little or no increases are seldom cut by governors and legislatures, but they do not gain expansions above their requests, either.

A number of studies have duplicated Sharkansky's methods at the federal and state levels (Bozeman, 1977; Lauth, 1984; LeLoup and Moreland, 1978; Thompson, 1987; Saleh, 1991; Clarke, 1997). …

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