Massachusetts not alone in court funding crisis

Issue December 2011 By ABA President WM T. (Bill) Robinson III

We all experience delays that slow down and frustrate our daily lives, from traffic jams on a city street to long lines at a grocery store. But some delays are more than an inconvenience -- these delays threaten the very core of our constitutional democracy.

For several years, the American Bar Association has observed a troubling trend in state court budgets. In fiscal year 2010, 40 states -- including Massachusetts -- cut funding for their judiciaries, and fiscal year 2011 isn't any better. Over the last three years, Massachusetts has reduced spending for its courts by $85 

These cuts are having effects, both big and small, on access to justice around the country and in your state. A hiring freeze has remained in effect since October 2008. The Massachusetts court system has lost more than 1,100 trial court employees through attrition, which constitutes a 15 percent reduction in the workforce. Thirty-eight courts recently reduced the counter and telephone hours of clerks and registers for staff to manage the backlog of cases.

Courts around the country have made difficult decisions just as they have in Massachusetts. New Hampshire delayed civil trials for a year. A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse. In Alabama, a judge asked the charitable arm of a local bar association to donate money to help pay juror stipends.

People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach the courtroom. If our legal system isn't accessible, then it can't be just and it won't be fair.

The constitutional argument for sustainable funding for our courts is simple: The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government responsible for protecting our rights. The practical argument is equally compelling. The state courts, which handle approximately 95 percent of all legal cases in the United States, decide matters that go to the very core of our daily lives -- like child custody cases and business disputes -- and protect us from threats to our safety.

The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just 1 percent of a state's entire budget; that's often less than a state allocates for an executive branch agency. In Massachusetts, the courts receive only 2 percent of the state budget.

Members of the legal community are beginning to understand this situation, and we're taking steps to combat the crisis.

Courts -- including those in Massachusetts -- are doing their part to demonstrate integrity, efficiency and innovation. The Boston Bar Association credits the web-based MassCourts with increasing the timely disposition of cases by more than 15 percent. The National Center for State Courts recently recognized Massachusetts' new jury automation system, which dramatically reduced the number of summons issued and saved the trial courts more than a million dollars annually.

The ABA continues the work of its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, co-chaired by Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, bringing those affected by this crisis together to discuss strategies to help our judiciary.

But we need to go beyond our profession for solutions.

The ABA is working with state and local bar associations to rethink how to sensibly spend taxpayer dollars to ensure public safety. It costs $47,000 per year to hold an offender in custody, according to the Corrections Master Plan commissioned by the Patrick-Murray 

We need to decriminalize minor offenses, utilize pretrial release and implement effective re-entry programs, among other reforms. I am pleased to see that some of these reforms are under consideration in Massachusetts.

We also must articulate what courts do and why they are important to legislators and to the general public -- especially to young people, because that civic knowledge will drive a renewed dedication to the preservation of our justice system.

Even in times of extreme economic hardship, our courts need adequate financial support and essential resources to fulfill their constitutional responsibility. Let's join together to fight for this access, otherwise … No courts. No justice. No freedom.

Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd LLC, a regional law firm with offices in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Indiana. He currently serves as president of the American Bar Association for a one-year term that began Aug. 8, 2011.