As States Cut Court Budgets, Who Pays The Price?

As many states are coping with diminished budgets, they're slashing funding to court systems. This has led to delays in traffic hearings, divorce proceedings and other issues affecting everyday Americans. Some analysts are worrying about states' abilities to dispense justice. Michel Martin speaks with Mary McQueen of the National Center for State Courts.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

It's no secret that states across the country are cutting back on services as officials deal with tight budgets. We've heard a lot about jurisdictions that have cut funding for schools and libraries and even, in a few places, laid off police officers.

But what happens when the cuts come to the courts, which are there to try to resolve disputes between individuals like businesses and marriages, or with the government in matters ranging from traffic tickets to violent crimes? According to the American Bar Association, last year, 40 states made cuts to their court funding. That's led to some courts closing their doors an extra day a week, administrative layoffs and a backlog of cases in some parts of the country.

In Florida, for example, the court system is looking at a budget shortfall of over $100 million. In New York, budget cuts led to the layoffs of hundreds of court employees, and in New Hampshire, civil cases may now take over a year to be decided as courts struggle to keep the pace.

To talk more about the current situation and how citizens are being affected, we've called Mary McQueen. She is president of the National Center for State Courts, and she recently took part in a symposium in Kentucky to address court funding. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARY MCQUEEN: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, I already mentioned the situation in New York, New Hampshire and Florida. Are there other parts of the country where officials are really concerned about the kind of service that the courts are going to be able to provide because of budget situations?

MCQUEEN: Absolutely, Michel. I mean, over 43 states have faced budget reductions, and most recently, this past summer, California announced an additional 150 million. New York, as you mentioned, also had an incredible reduction that resulted in laying off over 400 court personnel, and judicial positions are not being filled.

So the result has had a real impact not only on services to the public, but access to justice and increased delay.

MARTIN: And I think it is worth mentioning that the overwhelming majority of matters that go to a court go to a state court. Isn't that right?

MCQUEEN: That's true. Over 96 percent of all litigation in the country happen in the state courts, and that's where people who need services - not just, you know, the major corporations or the highly sensitive criminal cases, but just the daily issues of, you know, resolving anything from a traffic ticket to a property line to a foreclosure issue, trying to make sure that, you know, you're getting adequate government services. That's where I think the average person in the country really sees justice.

MARTIN: And that's what - I was going to ask you that. What if someone is listening to our conversation and says, well, I don't plan on getting arrested. So what does this have to do with me?

MCQUEEN: No, I think that's a good question, because I think that some of the premises, even going back to, you know, when the founding generation was concerned about creating a new government, part of the reason that we had a Revolutionary War was because of the way justice, or injustice, was being provided during those times.

And so, for instance, I think the average citizen on the street always - say, the person behind me in line at the grocery store - you know, why should they care? Well, I think we all really want to preserve, for instance, the right to jury trial.

Now, whether or not I may think that I may never want a jury trial, I think it has to do with the public's trust and confidence in a branch of government that's kind of the last stop in trying to resolve issues, even, you know, between a person and the government, between a person and their neighbor, between businesses.

And if you, for instance, can't get a personal injury dispute - say, an automobile accident - resolved, and you can't get your medical expenses paid, you know, it may result in someone ultimately having to sell their home, losing everything because they've got to pay those medical bills while this case is dragging on and on in court.

And, in fact, we have seen states - because of, you know, this basic economic tsunami - look at eliminating jury trials for certain types of cases, moving them into more of an administrative hearing process similar to worker's compensation. And unfortunately, I think that when you're the smallest branch of government - I mean, on the average, the state court budgets are less than two percent of the entire state budgets.

You could take every discretionary dollar, all the travel, all the training, all the building costs out of their budget, and you wouldn't round to one-hundredth of one-tenth of one percent. And so when you apply across-the-board cuts to a branch of government that already has very scarce resources, it has an unbelievably devastating effect. And it's not that chief justices and presiding judges at the local courts don't want to be partners with their local legislators or executives, governors, county commissioners - absolutely, we have to participate in that. But it can't be in the double-digit, devastating ways that the courts are experiencing now.

MARTIN: We're speaking with the president of the National Center for State Courts, Mary McQueen, and we're talking about cuts that many states have made to their court budgets in the wake of tight budgets across the country. Some 40 states made cuts to their court funding last year, according to the American Bar association.

So, Mary McQueen, is there any way to know how much longer it will take, for example, to get a court date in a civil matter than it would have, say, a year ago? Is there any way to quantify that, the effect that...

MCQUEEN: Absolutely, absolutely. The courts, I think, are the first branch of government that have actually established performance measures, that hold themselves to voluntary performance measures, Michel. I mean, we know that the U.S. Supreme Court and cases have held that, especially persons on the criminal side of the aisle that are facing loss of liberty, have to have a speedy trial.

And there's a concern that sometimes, because of that Supreme Court opinion, that the criminal side of the business of courts gets first priority. But the states have established aspirational time standards for civil cases, for family cases, for, you know, dissolutions of marriage and others. And you absolutely - the states track that.

And we've seen, especially in states like New Hampshire, for instance, who've had to just postpone jury trials, that now, you know, you're looking at up to 18 to 24 months in some states to get that resolved.

MARTIN: And so in all that time, people are in limbo. They can't dissolve businesses that aren't working. They can't resolve, say, individual disputes for even criminal matters that are pending. They can't resolve it. They can't move on.

MCQUEEN: Right.

MARTIN: Finally, you know, last month, as we mentioned, you participated in a symposium sponsored by your organization, the National Center for State Courts, along with the American Bar Association and the University of Kentucky College of Law. Did any ideas arise from this meeting to address this, which, as you've described in very dramatic terms, can really have a profound impact on people's lives? Were there any ideas that came from that?

I mean, you already mentioned one idea that some jurisdictions are experimenting with, is moving matters that would be before juries into more administrative proceedings, and so forth. Were there any other ideas that came forward that we might be thinking about as we go forward?

MCQUEEN: No, absolutely. In fact, one of the panels that was presented at that conference was called Courts with 21st Century Cases. I think the courts may be the only branch of government that, if John Adams came back today, he could still practice without any update.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCQUEEN: So basically, we've started a process of what we call re-engineering the courts, basically looking at the different processes and the different steps that are required in people coming to court to see if we can be more efficient.

We do have examples of states. One that comes to mind is Utah has gone to using digital recording to capture the court record. And you still can get a written transcript if you need one on appeal, but that saved millions of dollars for the state of Utah to look at a different way, recognizing technology.

Other courts have gone to e-filing. You know, right now, it's kind of interesting that most of the documents that get filed in court probably are in electronic form in somebody's law office or their home computer if they're self-represented. You have to print them out and bring them to court, and then they have to re-scan them back into a case management system.

Well, we should be able to design processes where people can just file electronically with the court and reduce some of the cost that way. So, yes, courts are very energetic about looking at those alternatives.

MARTIN: All right, to be continued. Mary McQueen is president of the National Center for State Courts. She was kind enough to join us from Downey, California. Mary McQueen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCQUEEN: Thank you, Michel.

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