Budget Cuts = Justice Gap?
State Courts Play Defense as Funding Falls in Recession
by Nathan Dickerson
The Great Recession that started in 2007 has state courts playing defense.
That’s the way Washington State Court Administrator Jeff Hall sees it. As states slash budgets to match falling revenue, state courts are scrambling to accommodate increasingly restricted budgets.
In fact, Washington’s Justice in Jeopardy Initiative Web site says it all: “There is a justice gap, and it is growing!”
Washington’s initiative was started in 2002 to draft a sustainable and adequate plan for delivering justice in trial courts. The recession has reinvigorated the effort’s relevance as many of the services it spurred, such as increased compensation for court interpreters, are facing the chopping block.
Because of the reductions, Hall noted, “some municipal courtrooms have already gone dark.”
Washington is not alone. State courts across the country are struggling with the challenge of processing cases in a timely and efficient manner while absorbing the cuts imposed by limited budgets.
State courts are turning to three primary strategies to cope with less funding: cutting spending, raising revenue and increasing
The judicial branch is generally distinguishable from the other branches of state government in that the majority of spending is allocated for staffing. The court system in Iowa, for example, devotes 95 percent of its budget to personnel expenses, according to an Iowa courts report from January, “Justice in the Balance.” So when courts must reduce their budgets, those expenses predominantly must be extracted from employees—one of the court systems’ key resources for delivering services.
The National Center for State Courts includes hiring freezes, salary freezes, pay cuts, court closures, furloughs, layoffs, and early retirements as examples of cost-cutting measures. All these tools can reduce budgets significantly.
In Arizona for example, the court system, “has delayed filling judicial vacancies, imposed a hiring freeze, and frozen salaries,” according to the National Center for State Courts.
Such efforts in Arizona have helped reduce the overall local and state court budget by $40 million, according to David Byers, administrative director of the courts.
Delaware courts, in contrast, have placed a hiring freeze on all but the most critical positions, such as court security.
“Vacant case processing positions, which are critical to court operations, may be left unfilled for many months, affecting the time it takes for courts to dispose of cases and morale of existing employees who end up handling the additional work,” said Patricia Griffin, administrator of Delaware State Courts.
Personnel cuts come with a cost. “ … When we finish a legislative session and I don’t have to tell anyone they’ve lost their job, it’s big,” said Lisa Goodner, the state courts administrator in Florida.
Goodner was especially relieved to maintain staff in the 2010–11 budget after cuts were made in the fiscal years spanning 2007 to 2010. In these down years, Florida courts laid off 280 employees from its 3,100 person work force, according to a report from the National Center for State Courts. Judges in Florida sustained a 2 percent reduction in pay for the 2009–10 fiscal year, which has been continued for the 2010-11 fiscal year, Goodner said.
Such sacrifices are happening across the country, according to the National Center for State Courts.
While some states have more flexibility through local funding, “reductions in state funding can have a ripple effect,” Hall of Washington said. “Local budgets are not in a position to adequately compensate for a reduction in state funding.”
Making cuts can only take the court system so far. During times of economic stress, the court systems must balance reduced budgets with an increased caseload. Take Florida, where the housing crisis wrought by the recession created more than 500,000 backlogged foreclosure cases.
The Florida courts have modified the fee for foreclosure cases, according to Goodner. It’s no longer merely a flat fee; it’s now proportional to the size of the loan. The Florida courts have raised $6 million from the filing fee to tackle backlogged cases. But those funds will help the courts process only about 62 percent of the backlogged caseload, Goodner said.
Some state courts have found ways to raise funds by better collecting the fees and fines they are already owed. Arizona, for example, has developed an integrated data system known as FARE to collect unpaid fees and fines. The data system will send warnings via U.S. mail to indebted individuals. If fines are not paid, the system places a hold on the debtor’s license plate. The fees can be paid at the time of renewal, even if the renewal takes place online.
Byers said FARE has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for city, county and state governments. This effort parallels a proposal states are making to have the federal government intercept income taxes to collect unpaid fees.
Some states, such as Oregon, Delaware, Arizona, New Mexico and Arkansas, are requesting a federal tax intercept to collect unpaid dollars.
“(States can) intercept tax refunds for child support debts, state and federal tax debt and federal agency debt, but not for the collection of court ordered fines, fees and restitution,” an Arizona Federal Tax Intercept Proposal memo said. Intercepting these fees is significant because “Arizona courts currently possess between $500 million and $1 billion in victim restitution, fine fees and surcharges that are past due.”
Some states have also found ways to increase efficiency to deal with budget woes.
To offset staff cuts, information technology— primarily e-filing—has helped state court systems deliver more services with fewer employees and reduce storage costs.
Arizona has been using the AZTurboCourt.gov system for years, and it has proved particularly beneficial in this difficult economic climate. The system has become so ingrained in the fabric of the court system that Arizona has adopted the electronic copy of documents as the official document.
“The original forms of these documents were electronic; they were just printed on paper,” Byers said.
Arizona’s system is statewide, covering both criminal and civil cases. The court also charges fees for using the system, which helps make it economically sustainable. This electronic system has helped replace other physical storage solutions that were significantly more expensive to maintain.
Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, built a multi-million dollar storage facility for court documents that, while originally intended to last a decade, was filled in only a few years. Those types of costs are avoided with an electronic filing system.
“The Maricopa superior court receives roughly 40,000 copies of paper a day, which then must be filed,” said Byers. “The storage cost for the state is tens of millions every year.”
The technology has such promise that Florida, which did not have an e-filing system in place before the recession, has now made it a priority investment despite limited funds, said Goodner.
At the heart of the tug of war between court systems’ budget cuts and their delivery of services is the duty of the courts to protect justice.
Griffin, of Delaware, believes the standard of protecting justice is determined by the rate at which a case can be processed.
“Is it appropriate for a landlord and tenant case to be settled in weeks or months? For a traffic case to take months to be heard? These are the sorts of questions we must examine in determining the impact of fiscal cutbacks,” she said.
States like Delaware have developed specific formulas for delineating what their courts’ staffing needs are to ensure a timely process that protects justice. Several factors come into play in making these calculations, such as the nature and complexity of the cases to the number of lawyers involved and legal requirements related to court coverage by judges.
These statistics help ensure that courts are adequately funded and can process cases in a timely and efficient manner.
This is important work because, as the American Judicature Society’s Seth Andersen puts it:
“… Justice delayed is justice denied.”