I had the privilege of speaking this weekend at the Pound Civil Justice Institute’s Forum for State Appellate Court Judges. Though I was speaking on social media and the courts, the broader theme of the conference was the funding crisis for state courts. It was sobering to hear about courthouses that are cutting hours or even days out of their operating schedules due to budget problems, and judges who must choose between having a bailiff in their courtrooms and having a law clerk. Because much of my work is in the federal courts, I had been shielded from the harsher realities of courts that are operating on shoestring budgets.
Further reading in this area revealed just how dire the situation is in some states, and what a toll the funding crisis has taken on many aspects of society. A 2011 report from the ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, entitled “Crisis in the Courts,” documented the extent to which already underfunded courts have suffered as a result of budget cuts arising from the economic downturn, and the profound impact these cuts have had in four key areas. First, delays in resolving criminal cases have affected public safety. Second, there have been widespread negative effects on the economy. Delays in resolving foreclosures (particularly in the residential sector), bankruptcies and other business functions and disputes have caused untold losses to individuals and businesses alike. Third, the cuts have reduced access to the justice system for the most vulnerable among us – children awaiting custody decisions, battered women seeking the protection of the courts, and others who suffer profoundly from long delays and reduced access to free legal services. Finally, the ABA cites damage to the tripartite system of government when the courts are so desperately dependent upon the legislative and executive branches for funding, and these latter branches can effectively strip the judicial branch of its power with inadequate funding.
As disheartening as it has been to learn all of this, it was equally uplifting to hear 130 judges talk with passion about the need to ensure that courts remain open and affordable to all who seek to use them. Over and over at the Forum, judges affirmed their commitment to ensuring access to justice, and expressed concern about options that might limit such access. They also talked about the importance of never compromising the independence of the judiciary from the state legislatures, upon which the courts rely for funding. I walked away with a sense of strong concern for the funding of state courts but a great sense of comfort in and respect for the integrity and commitment of the judiciary in our state appellate court system.