Budget Cuts, Bigger Work Load Cramp State Courts

State courts complain that the poor economy is threatening their ability to provide constitutionally mandated services. Legislatures across the country are requiring courts to get along with less money, just like other parts of the government. But court administrators say they can't decide to hear fewer cases, and the case load goes up — not down — when economic times are hard.

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The economic downturn has reached the courts. State courts are being asked to cut back, even though traditionally, court workloads get heavier during hard times.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report.

ARI SHAPIRO: Every state has its own method for funding the court system. So trying to figure out what's happening nationally inevitably means figuring out what's happening in each of the 50 states, which is exactly what Mary McQueen has done. She's president of the National Center for State Courts.

Ms. MARY McQUEEN (President, National Center for State Courts): If I look at some feedback I got from the state court administrators where you said, you know, how many of you think that courts are adequately funded versus inadequately funded, that's jumped by over 20 percent.

SHAPIRO: Over the last two years, 20 percent more court administrators said their programs are inadequately funded. That brings the total of state court administrators who feel that way to more than half.

And McQueen says there's a difference between under funding courts and under funding other state programs, because courts are constitutionally required to offer their services.

Ms. McQUEEN: And it's not whether or not judges can decide, well, these types of cases should be heard and others shouldn't. The right to justice applies across the board.

SHAPIRO: When courts have to trim their budgets, in some cases, fees go and up. And McQueen says that limits access to justice.

Ms. McQUEEN: Let's just say that you want to seek a protection order in a domestic violence case and you have to pay a filing fee. There are some real concerns that people won't be able to come to court to resolve their disputes, because they just can't afford it.

SHAPIRO: In Florida, a state senate committee is talking about increasing fees. Judge Robert Morris is the chief judge of Florida's Sixth Judicial Circuit. He recently wrote an opinion piece entitled the survival of the third branch.

Judge ROBERT MORRIS (Chief Judge, Florida's Sixth Judicial Circuit): We feel like this is a very serious matter, and the budget cuts that are presently on the table in our circuit, it would require us to layoff one-third of our state employees.

SHAPIRO: And how is this different from any other state agency being asked to just tighten its belt like the whole state is doing?

Judge MORRIS: The reason it's different is that the judicial branch is pretty much 90 percent people and salaries. We don't own buildings. We don't have vehicles. We don't really have much in the way of programs. We literally have all of our people hands on handling the case load that the people bring us.

SHAPIRO: And Judge Morris says these cuts come as the court's workload grows.

Judge MORRIS: Our foreclosure cases, of course, have skyrocketed. They are 100 percent of what they once were. Economic crimes go up. Contracts disputes go up. And when times are good, people have a tendency to not fight over an economic matter, which they're compelled to do as a matter of survival in hard times.

SHAPIRO: In Maine, the latest round of budget cuts prompted the judges to threaten a moratorium on civil and criminal trials. That threat is now off the table, but Walter McKee, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says there's still no clear solution.

Mr. WALTER MCKEE (President, Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers): This has been a significantly under funded criminal justice system for many, many years. And they've been cutting into bone year after year after year. And our position was they finally had broken the bone of the system.

SHAPIRO: People outside of the court system have varying degrees of sympathy for these complaints. Professor Alan Tarr directs the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University. He says state courts are an easy target for budget cuts when times get tough.

Professor ALAN TARR (Director, Center for State Constitutional Studies, Rutgers University): Because courts lack the constituency, the interest group support, that you find for other governmental programs.

SHAPIRO: Within the state court system, people say this is a grievous constitutional wrong. Do you think that overstates it?

Prof. TARR: It does overstate it to some extent. If they refuse to fund state courts at all, that would be a quite different matter. But it's questions of degree, and courts are no different from other institutions in the executive branch or in the legislative branch. When there are budget shortfalls, all branches are going to feel the pinch.

SHAPIRO: In the worst case scenario, courts can sue lawmakers for failing to fund constitutionally mandated services. Mary McQueen of the Center for State Courts calls that the nuclear warhead. She says it hasn't happened for a long time, and she hopes it doesn't happen during this economic downturn.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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