Courts Embrace Technology, Advocacy To Stay Afloat
By Maggie Clark, Staff Writer
The struggling economy is still squeezing court system budgets across the country, and scaling back operations won’t fix the growing gap between reduced court services and growing public demand for court access. So state courts are turning to other solutions, according to a gathering of state chief justices, court administrators and legislators in Washington D.C. Thursday (November 15).
“We cannot manage our way out of the crisis,” Myron T. Steele, chief justice of Delaware, said at a press conference. “Layoffs, furloughs, reduced operating hours, and in Delaware, even voluntary reductions in judicial salaries, are not going to fill the widening economic gap.”
Instead, the group said, state courts are embracing technology as a way to deliver more services at lower costs. And they’re also advocating for themselves by building relationships with legislatures and the public.
For instance, the Utah state court system is now entirely paperless in civil trials. The courts also started accepting payments electronically, reducing the number of payment clerks and dependence on data entry. Even warrants are now electronic—judges can accept or decline them by computer.
To get the legislature on board, State Court Administrator Daniel Becker evaluated court spending and presented his findings to the House appropriations committee, which impressed the appropriations chairman, state Representative Eric Hutchings.
“Most state agency directors are liars when they’re sitting in front of the committee and talking about the budget,” Hutchings said at the news conference. But with Becker, Hutchings said, “it wasn’t just, ‘give us the money and don’t ever talk to us again.’”
The courts continued to collect data on what changes they were making and their outcomes. That convinced the committee to continue supporting the courts, Hutchings said. “When you have that kind of data in front of people,” he said, “even your critics have a hard time arguing with the data.”
Beyond building trust in the legislature, courts are also advocating for themselves with the public. Earlier this year in California, hundreds of court employees, union members and political leaders rallied in Los Angeles and San Francisco to protest against more cuts to the state court system. The court’s budget is now 30 percent smaller than it was in 2008 and the latest $544 million cut put all court construction projects on indefinite hold and forced hundreds of layoffs.
Over the next eight months, Los Angeles County will close 10 courthouses, including the Catalina Island court, said Pat Kelly, president of the State Bar of California, at the conference Thursday. That means that someone living on Catalina Island, which sits off the coast of California near Los Angeles, will have to take a three-hour boat ride to resolve a traffic ticket, Kelly explained.
“There is no amount of efficiency (that) will take us back from the $1.2 billion (budget) reduction, the 30 percent reduction, that California has seen,” said California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye at the conference. But she is hopeful that their message will be heard.
“There is a turn in California with the passage of Proposition 30 (a voter-approved tax increase)…which will alleviate some of the budget crisis in California,” she said. “It’s dire now…but we will be working with the governor to explain our need and relying heavily on advocacy in the legislature,” to maintain a functioning court system in California, Cantil-Sakauye said.