American Bar Association President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III continued to focus on the growing funding crisis in our courts. According to Robinson, 42 states have reduced court budgets, 34 reduced staff, 39 stopped filling clerk vacancies, and 23 reduced courthouse operating hours. The ABA has sent hundreds of kits, to state and local bars across the country, which provide guidance on ways to lobby for better court funding. The kits include videos highlighting the problems, statistics and sample editorials.
To help bring greater awareness to the court funding issue, the ABA has established its Law Day theme as “no courts, no justice, no freedom.” The goal is to spur rallies and press conferences on the steps of every state capitol on Law Day, May 1, to speak out on the need for court funding.
Across the nation, legislators are forcing the courts to figure out ways to cut out case types, cut back services, reduce jury trials, and add more mediators, who act as judges but who are really not judges, to resolve cases more cheaply. Criminal, juvenile, and family cases necessarily take priority, denying timely resolution of civil conflicts to all parties. The lack of court funding coupled with excessive litigation costs, will ultimately reduce access to both the state and federal civil justice systems for all but the very wealthy.
The National Center for State Courts reports for Colorado the following facts:
- Colorado’s courts are funded by the state and include district and county courts and the state’s probation function. Colorado’s total state appropriation increased from $352 million in FY11 to $374 million in FY12. The Judiciary will be increasing the number of judges, the number of staff persons and the amount spent on operating costs.
- Six million dollars was transferred from the Department of Corrections to the Judiciary to treat probation offenders and keep them out of prison. This transfer accounts for over $12 million of the increase from FY2011 to FY2012.
- To reduce spending, the Colorado courts have reduced hours of operations, delayed filling judicial and staff vacancies and vacancies in judicial support positions. They have had to lay off staff and to reduce the use of retired judges.
- The above cuts have resulted in overall diminished public access to the courts. Primarily, staff cuts have reduced the Branch's ability to respond to pro se litigants and phone access to the courts has become limited.
- Colorado has frozen the salaries of judges and staff. The lack of salary increases has impacted staff morale and just recently, the Branch has started to see high quality and experienced staff leaving the Branch for higher paying jobs.
Everyone agrees that our public institutions must run efficiently with as little waste as possible. But budget cuts should not be allowed to take away our right to use courtrooms when we need to. Courts must be open to protect families, to validate and protect contracts for business and our individual rights. Justice for all does require money, and we should insist that our elected representatives insure that funding which keeps the wheels of justice turning.