The Cost of Justice: Funding State Courts

By Netsch, Dawn Clark | Judicature, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Justice: Funding State Courts


Netsch, Dawn Clark, Judicature


An edited transcript of a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Judicature Society on August 6, 2004.

Participants:

Honorable Shirley Abrahamson, Chief Justice, Wisconsin Supreme Court

Terene Bennett, Southern Gulf Regional Program Specialist, National CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) Association

Richard Bien, Chair, ABA Judicial Division

Zelda DeBoyes, Court Administrator, Aurora Municipal Court, Aurora, Colorado

Professor James Douglas, Department of Political Science, University of South Carolina

Daniel Hall, Vice President, Court Consulting Services, National Center for State Courts

Mary Campbell McQueen, President, National Center for State Courts

Honorable Henry Michaux, North Carolina House of Representatives

Honorable Frank Sullivan, Justice, Indiana Supreme Court

Frances Kahn Zemans, Reporter for the ABA Commission on State Court Funding.

Dawn Clark Netsch: This morning's program focuses on court funding-where does the money come from and how adequate is it? Who should be accountable for it? Are courts adequately funded? What constitutes adequate funding? These are fundamental questions. We're also, of course, concerned with who is responsible for funding. Separation of powers is a deeply ingrained principle in our system. Yet here is one of the three basic branches of government that is dependent on one or both of the others for its livelihood. How does all of that get sorted out?

Introduction and overview

James Douglas: I'll start off by summarizing some of what we know about organizational structure in the courts. It's difficult to make broad generalizations because there's so much variance in the states and how they do things, but we can still roughly outline some things. First, about 1.8 percent of total state appropriations go to finance court operations. This ranges from about 0.33 percent in Washington to 4.8 percent in Utah. But percentages can be deceiving because they don't include considerations such as how much of the courts are funded by local appropriations. On average, about 75 percent of trial court funding for courts of general jurisdiction come from state funding sources.

Most funding for all state activities comes from general funds; however, many states have set up special funds. Often these are funds that take specific revenue sources and dedicate them to specific court functions. Some of them can also be very general and operate in general revolving funds. They might take revenues from different sources, put them into a single fund, and then the courts have wide discretion on how they can spend that money.

An excellent example is Oklahoma where the state collects revenues-fines, fees, forfeitures-and puts them into a state judicial fund. This money is then used by the courts to fund court activities and salaries. In fact, many courts of limited jurisdiction are funded entirely by these special funds. The advantage of having special funds is that they are dedicated to the courts. Disadvantages could be that it forces the courts to spend money in certain ways and can limit growth because it might be difficult to acquire more resources.

Then there are state grants. Courts sometimes will apply for grants through executive agencies in the states. This is often used to finance court innovations or start-up costs. An example is South Carolina where the Department of Public Safety has special grant programs for a variety of things that adhere to the goals of the department. The courts have used these grants to start up and finance some of their drug courts.

Finally, there are certain control issues that vary in the states. Who prepares the budget? In 37 states, central administrative offices will prepare the budget and submit it to the governor or legislature or both. In seven states it's the court of last resort that has this responsibility, and in six states individual courts will do this. …

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