To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom
This year, the California courts face a budget crisis of unprecedented magnitude and scope. Over the last four years, the judicial branch budget -- which represents a tiny fraction of the general fund budget, less than 1 percent -- has shrunk by 30 percent. So far, courts have managed the reductions reasonably well, largely because each of our 58 counties has the ability to maintain reserve funds. But those reserves are now depleted or near depleted in many counties, and we are now at a point where another round of cuts in 2012 will force court closures, personnel furloughs, and other measures that will reduce services offered to the public.
This is occurring in state court systems all over the country. These reductions come at the worst possible time. Our courts, already short-staffed after managing their way through years of sustained budget cutting and demands to deliver more justice with less, have been inundated with foreclosure cases, credit card and other collection controversies, disputes arising out of business failures, and a rising level of cases among families under stress – from routine divorces to domestic violence – all traceable directly to the economic recession. The courts must deal with all of this, often facing the additional challenges created when litigants come to court pro se because lawyers are unaffordable.
Why should we care about this when all levels of government are under budgetary pressure? We should all care first and foremost because a strong and independent judiciary is a central pillar of our democracy. The courts are not just another government agency, like the DMV or the bureau of weights and measures. In California, as in many states, the judiciary’s fraction of the general fund budget has borne a disproportionate share of the state’s budget cuts compared to legislative and executive branch budgets. Why that occurred may be understandable, since judges are not lobbyists and have no political “constituency” (rightly so). But it is wrong. It is inconsistent with our constitutional structure of government.
We should care because the most vulnerable among us suffer the most from reductions in judicial branch services. The brunt of the cuts will be felt in the trial courts, and since those courts must give priority to criminal matters, the civil courts will be first on the chopping block. Some courthouses will close outright, consolidating their operations in other buildings and forcing people who come to court to travel longer distances, with consequent loss of time off from work. Many courtrooms will go dark. Delays will cascade through the system, from waiting time in line to get into court or into the clerk’s office to file papers, to years-long delays before getting a trial. Court reporters' services and translation services will no longer be available. Mediation services will no longer be available. Self-help services for pro se parties will no longer be available.
We should care because the adverse impact of sustained budget cuts on our court system, inevitably, will degrade their critical role as guardians of the public safety. Many of California’s courthouses are ill-equipped to deal with the security challenges of handling pre-trial detainees in a manner that keeps them physically isolated from court staff and the public and that ensures safety. Facilities upgrades to address these deficiencies are on hold. In many states around the country, cuts to the courts have slowed criminal dockets to such an extent that judges and prosecutors are being forced to warehouse untried defendants in local jails, foisting additional expense on other sectors of local government, and in some cases releasing potentially violent offenders simply because further pretrial detention is constitutionally impermissible or practically infeasible.
We should care because the delays in our court system will cause economic damage far beyond the level of short-term savings. Many non-profit social service providers are warning against further budget cuts, but they have joined by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber recognizes that delays in the court system are anathema to business. Businesses need certainty. The enforceability of contracts is paramount, and if any party to a contract can simply walk away – which will become more and more common if the cost and time-consuming nature of going to court, in effect, blocks enforcement – the foundation of economic decision making will be eroded. In fact, several studies have been done in recent years showing that for every dollar of cuts to a state’s judicial budget, the resulting delays in the court system will cause damages to the state’s economy by a multiple of the short-term savings.
Thus, my simple motto this year, borrowed from William Robinson, this year’s president of the American Bar Association, who has chosen to make adequate court funding his top priority, just as I have in California, is this: No courts, no justice, no freedom.
Jon B, Streeter