by Daniel J. Hall
In a climate of decreasing revenues from all sources, unpredictable federal funding, and increased competition for funding at the state and local level, state courts must vigorously present and justify their resource needs in order to deliver justice.
The National Center for State Courts, or NCSC, initiated an annual survey in 2011 to learn whether the economic recession of 2008 and state legislative reaction to tough economic times were having an impact on the state courts’ resources and the courts’ ability to deliver justice. The NCSC learned that two-thirds of the states experienced a decrease in state funding in 2010 and 60 percent experienced a decrease in 2011.
In the fall 2016 survey, 22 states and territories responded. Results from the survey suggest that the financial situation in state courts has somewhat improved, but the courts are still struggling. While 12 of the states and territories reported being in better shape than they were in 2008, eight of the state court systems reported being in worse shape. Six of the state court systems are in worse financial shape than just one year ago.
“Declining funding for the judicial branch is having a real impact not only on essential court services but also on the courts’ ability to provide nonessential, but very effective, programs and services,” said Arthur W. Pepin, director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts and president of the Conference of State Court Administrators, an affiliate organization of the National Center for State Courts. “Effective programs including drug courts, foreclosure settlement programs and others face elimination despite their clearly demonstrated value to taxpayers and to the participants.”
State Court Funding Streams
State courts receive funding from a variety of sources including their state’s general fund, county and municipal general funds, and federal dedicated grant funding.
About two-thirds of the state court systems receive funding primarily from the state; 20 percent receive funding primarily from the counties and municipalities, and 20 percent receive funding from a mix of state and local sources.
But funding for state courts isn’t limited to state and local governments.
The federal government provides some funding directly to the state courts to help them to prevent and address child abuse and neglect and to assist the courts to hear and dispose of cases involving domestic violence. The State Justice Institute receives federal funds to provide technical assistance and training to the state courts.
NCSC’s 2016 fall survey of courts revealed that individual states face challenges, mostly due to declining state or local revenue and competition with other state and locally funded priorities. As an example, the Texas Judiciary has been told that this year’s legislative priorities are reforming the foster care system, addressing mental health, attending to the public education finance system, making higher education more accessible and encouraging economic opportunity for businesses.
But some court officials in the states are concerned that the costs associated with these legislative priorities could have a big impact on resources for the courts.
“Shifting budget allocations to these initiatives could affect the judiciary’s ability to fulfill its mission to enhance service to families, children, and the elderly and incapacitated; to provide basic legal services for low-income populations; and to provide indigent defense and representation for defendants with mental illness,” said David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Judiciary.
Some states are seeing reduced funding due to reduced caseloads and reductions in fees, fines and surcharge revenues, and some states and territories are increasing the level of fines and fees to supplement their budgets. Courts in fossil fuel energy states, such as West Virginia and Wyoming, have experienced reductions in state revenue in recent years and expect the drop to continue.
Judicial and Staff Positions
A few of the state court systems have seen changes in the number of funded judicial positions. After years of struggling to hear and timely dispose of cases with existing judicial resources, a few of the state court systems received funding to add judicial positions needed to address the workload. The Arizona Legislature expanded the state’s Supreme Court from five to seven members, not at the request of the current court. Six other states received funding to increase the number of general or limited jurisdiction judicial positions in the coming year. Only North Dakota was forced to decrease the number of judicial positions.
Four states increased the number of staff positions and five states decreased the number of staff positions in their court systems in 2016.
Judicial and Staff Compensation
In 2016, a majority of the states and territories provided pay raises to judges and staff. The average annual percent salary increase for state court appellate and judicial officers and for the state court administrators was 1.72 percent from Jan. 1, 2016, to Jan. 1, 2017. This annual increase remains below the prerecession average annual increase of 3.24 percent from 2003–2007, according to the NCSC Survey of Judicial Salaries, 2017.
Investments in Technology
Technology is increasingly integral to court operations. Over the past two years alone, courts have funded and enhanced investments in information technology infrastructure, case management systems and electronic docketing management systems, electronic filing, digital court recording and video conferencing of court proceedings, cybersecurity protections, and apps for smartphones or other mobile devices. But as in any governmental or private-sector agency, funding for technology is rarely a one-time investment. Rather, with the rapid pace of new innovations, court officials anticipate that continued investments in new technologies and upgrades will remain a consistent part of state court budgets in the future.
Courts are struggling to enhance access to justice and fair and timely resolution of disputes. With pressures to reduce the scope of government as well as taxes on individuals and businesses at the state and local levels, courts must strongly present and justify their requests for the resources needed to serve those who enter the courthouse doors seeking protection, timely resolution and justice.