Court Cuts Trigger Blunt Warnings

 

The budget emergency facing state governments has produced an uncommon alliance of advocates - from business leaders to public defenders and chief judges - who, in blunt terms, are urging state lawmakers not to slash funding for the courts.

Among their warnings: The poor could go without lawyers. Businesses could take a financial hit. Court employees could be laid off by the hundreds, leading to the slower delivery of justice.

At least 25 state court systems face budget shortfalls this fiscal year, according to Daniel Hall, a vice president with the National Center for State Courts, a research and advocacy organization representing the 50 state court systems.

With state lawmakers around the country sitting down for painful budget talks for the next fiscal year - which begins July 1 in all but four states - they are debating whether the courts can absorb funding cuts of the kind being aimed at many state universities, prisons and parks.

"You have to remember that the courts are a coequal branch of government," said Utah state Sen. Scott McCoy, a Democratic member of the subcommittee overseeing court appropriations. "This isn't just some agency. It is of an entirely different magnitude in our constitutional structure."

The depth of some states' court funding problems already is on display.

New Hampshire is suspending jury trials for a month to save an estimated $73,000. Utah's chief justice warned that every one of the state's 1,000 court employees could be furloughed for 26 days starting this month. In Minnesota, the state's chief justice has taken the unusual step of going on a publicity tour to highlight court funding problems.

"Our state courts are in crisis," Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall told the American Bar Association on Monday (Feb. 16).

Compounding court shortfalls are caseloads that are on the rise in many areas, with foreclosures, contract disputes and other civil claims surging in the struggling economy. In Idaho, for example, civil case filings jumped an unprecedented 17 percent in 2008, the state courts administrator told a legislative panel in January.

As they work to craft much slimmer budgets for the coming fiscal year, state lawmakers are hearing from judges, lawyers and a range of constituents who say current funding levels for the courts are inadequate - and who argue, in no uncertain terms, that more cuts threaten the justice system itself.

In Florida, which recently announced it would lay off 280 court workers, or nearly 10 percent of its 3,100 court employees, business groups say the court system is so overworked and under-funded - and civil case delays so long - that the state's already beleaguered economy could suffer further.

At a conference of business leaders in Miami in January, Tony Villamil, an economist and dean of the business school at St. Thomas University, estimated that Florida faces more than $17 billion in lost economic output each year because of extensive civil case delays.

That figure, Villamil said, represents legal fees, lost interest payments and other expenses firms must pay - or revenue they must forgo - during protracted litigation. Villamil also estimated that more than 120,000 Florida jobs are "adversely impacted" by the court delays.

"It's too expensive to wait for our day in court," said William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, a subsidiary of the Florida Chamber of Commerce that advocates for pro-business changes to the state's civil justice system.

Utah's chief justice, in her annual speech to the Legislature Jan. 26, also said under- funded courts would have an adverse effect on the state's economy - a warning that McCoy, the Democratic state legislator, said has attracted attention in the halls of the statehouse.

"Some of the more conservative folks here have realized the commercial implications," he said.

But not everyone agrees. Florida state Rep. Michael Weinstein, a Republican and vice chair of the House Civil Justice and Courts Policy Committee, told Stateline.org he is skeptical of a direct link between funding of the courts and the economy, noting that "courts have historically been a slow process for resolving your disputes."

But Weinstein did not downplay the problems facing Florida's courts. "Rest assured: The Florida court system, as well as most of the other court systems in the country, are facing reductions in resources that cut to where it's close to being dangerous," he said.

In Kentucky, state-funded public defenders are sounding the alarm. Ed Monahan, the state's chief public advocate, warned in a newspaper column this month that the justice system could "unravel" unless legislators appropriate more money to public attorneys for the current fiscal year. Public defenders will run out of funds by May and prosecutors will run out by June, he said.

"The lack of sufficient funds could result in up to eight weeks without defenders in the courtrooms," Monahan said. "When an innocent person goes to jail, the real criminal is free in the community, putting everyone's safety at risk."

Monahan's office even has filed suit against the state, seeking permission to refuse new cases and citing annual workloads of up to 450 cases per attorney. A trial court rejected the plea.

Kentucky is not alone. Public defender's offices elsewhere, including statewide systems in Minnesota and Rhode Island and county-funded systems in Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, Tennessee, also have cut back on the services they can provide, according to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), which advocates for public defenders.

In Missouri, the state's chief justice last month told lawmakers that the Show Me State ranks last in the nation in per-capita funding of public defenders and, like Monahan, cautioned that the low funding level could jeopardize public safety.

"The federal constitution guarantees defendants both speedy trials and competent legal counsel," Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith said. "The inadequate number of public defenders, however, puts in question the state's ability to meet either of these requirements. In short, if not corrected, defendants potentially could be set free without going to trial."

Court funding shortfalls have attracted the attention of other groups as well. Many drug court professionals worry that state funding will be slashed for the courts, which provide alternatives to incarceration for low-risk drug offenders.

Legal aid groups, which provide civil legal services to the poor, have seen drastic funding cuts not only from states but through little-known programs - known as Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts , or IOLTAs - that are dependent on the interest rate set by the Federal Reserve.

The programs, which exist in all 50 states, take the interest earned on some escrow accounts lawyers keep for their clients and earmark it for legal services for the poor. As the Federal Reserve has slashed the interest rate in an effort to help the economy, however, the IOLTAs have lost millions in value, and legal aid groups are urging states not to enact further cuts.

Among the states that have seen the sharpest decline in funding for legal aid efforts are California, Connecticut and New York, said Don Saunders, a civil justice expert with the NLADA.

In other states, meanwhile, court employees themselves face furloughs or layoffs. Besides Florida and Utah, court workers in Iowa and Vermont also have been ordered to take unpaid leave to cut costs.

Personnel costs account for about 90 percent of state spending on courts, according to the National Center for State Courts. As a result, experts say, court administrators have little room to maneuver as they try to make cuts.

When courts are forced to lay off workers, "there's an immediate hit on services," Hall, the NCSC analyst, said. "You can't cut courts so deep that they can't resolve disputes," he said, "because then it starts to get at the fabric of our society."

 
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