State Courts: At The Forefront Of The United States Justice System

Monday, January 28, 2013 - 12:18

The Editor presents the following interview with Hon. Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York. This interview was conducted by Lawyers for Civil Justice (LCJ), a leading national organization supporting a wide range of measures that seek to ensure the quality of the U.S. judicial system. Since adequate funding for the federal and state judiciary and improved compensation for federal and state judges is the backbone of our judiciary, LCJ supports and encourages the defense bar and business community to take a more active role in meeting the current budget challenges.

LCJ: What is the condition of state court systems, and why is this an important issue?

Lippman: The courts, especially state courts, are essential to our system of government and our way of life. They are pillars in our society and should be as high a priority as are other institutions, such as housing, schools and hospitals. But in recent years, a crisis has occurred in funding of state judiciaries around the country, and, as a result, the system is now very much at risk. That is why I believe that state governments and society as a whole must reprioritize and find a way to better fund state courts, to support the constitutional and ethical role these courts have in our society.

LCJ: Why is the judiciary, particularly the state judiciary, a unique institution, and how does that affect the need for increased funding?

Lippman: State courts are really at the front line of justice in this country. Approximately 95 percent of the nation’s judicial business is done in state courts. Despite that, state judiciaries receive only about one or two percent of state budgets, which is less than many states will spend repainting road markings. And access to the courts is so fundamental to what we do every day, to our basic liberties. As a society, we must make it a priority to ensure that judiciaries have the resources they need to fulfill their constitutional mission. It is not enough to keep the doors of our courthouses open if what is happening inside is not meaningful.

LCJ: How has a lack of funding impacted the state court system?

Lippman: In many states around the country, cuts to court budgets have resulted in furloughs, court closings, layoffs and the suspension of civil trials. The consequences of these cuts are monumental in terms of our society, our legal system and ultimately in terms of people’s everyday rights.

In New York, two years ago our budget was cut by $170 million. To put the magnitude of that figure in perspective, it is more than the entire budget of some judiciaries in this country. As a result of this dramatic reduction, we had no choice but to lay off 400 non-judicial personnel. At the same time, because of the economic crisis, the demands on the court system, including increased numbers of foreclosures and consumer credit cases, have been greater than ever. 

Additionally, before April 2012, judicial salaries had not been raised in New York for 13 years.  There is reason to be concerned about sustaining the quality of our judiciary when state judges do not get even a cost-of-living increase for 13 years, and the young men and women who graduate from law school and begin working at large law firms earn more than state judges.

As of April 1, 2012, salary increases for New York state judges implemented by a statutorily created Special Commission on Judicial Compensation began to take effect. As a result of the Commission’s work, judges in New York State will receive increases of 27.3 percent, to be phased in over three years. Justices of the Supreme Court, New York’s trial court of general jurisdiction, saw their salaries increase to $160,000 in April 2012. That figure will increase to $167,000 in 2013 and $174,000 in 2014. The pay for all other judges will increase by the same percentage. These raises do not come close to catching up with the rate of inflation since this last salary adjustment in 1999. However, we are happy to take a step in the right direction and very pleased at the creation of the Commission, which takes the issue of judicial pay out of the political arena and will prevent a repeat of the long and destructive freeze on judicial salaries.

LCJ: Why has there been a reluctance to fund state courts?

Lippman: The economic downturn has had an impact on state court funding in New York and around the country. Resources are limited, and state courts are an easy target for budget cuts.  The bottom line problem is that the judiciary does not, at the federal or state level, have a seat at the table on budget issues. We are at the mercy of other branches of government when it comes to funding. And while we are an independent branch of government by constitutional design, we are also, in so many ways, interdependent, including with respect to our own budget. That is why it is so important for the public to understand the consequences of an underfunded judiciary.

LCJ: How can the legal and business communities help to alleviate the crisis in state courts?

Lippman: I believe that, with the support of lawyers and the business community, we can turn a corner. We can be vocal in our support and educate the public and the policy makers on why the courts are so important to the very fabric of our society. In New York and in other states we are forming coalitions of bar associations and different legal groups, and are working now with so many different groups around the country to educate the public on why the judiciary is a good and effective steward of taxpayer dollars. The National Center for State Courts, for example, has been very active in this regard. This is essential because there is a lack of understanding that this funding crisis is happening. People want to be confident that a vital justice system is effectively reinforcing the rule of law. They want their cases heard in court. They want them heard fairly and they want them heard impartially, but they do not necessarily understand how the lack of funding impacts that process.