Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


10 Questions

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, co-chair of The Council of State Governments Interbranch Working Group, offers some insights into what can affect the ability to provide fair and impartial state courts.
By Mary Branham
    1. What is the top issue facing state courts today?
      “Funding is a significant issue for the court system. For instance, right now in the state of Alabama, we get $165 million from the state. Well 97 and a half percent is salaries and benefits. We’re running a system in 67 counties, 248 judges, in probably 85 courthouses. We’re doing that off 2 and a half percent of $165 million. That’s almost impossible to do. It is very difficult to be able to really provide true access to all our citizens to our courts.”
    2. How does funding threaten the ability to have fair and impartial courts?
      “There’s an increasing number of citizens that don’t have money to hire a lawyer or the claim is an amount that is simply not profitable for a lawyer to handle. We must do more in order to be fair and impartial—to be able to make the accommodations for self-represented litigants. When the budget is cut, we are unable to do that. One of our most fundamental principles is that justice should be the same regardless of your economic circumstances. …The budget again where we aren’t able to adequately fund legal services, volunteer for lawyer programs, pro bono programs … all of that still takes money and that’s another area where access is reduced because we aren’t able to fund them.”
    3. So the current economic situation can impact fair and impartial courts?
      “We have courts that lost significant percentages of their budgets. When they do, that means we can provide less access. … In bad economic times you need the courts more, not less. We have more child support cases, more small claims cases, more divorce cases. We have more criminal cases. Money is down, budgets are static … but the cases rise. It’s difficult to maintain the services you want to give.”
    4. Judicial selection is another issue getting attention. How can the manner in which judges are selected affect the impartiality of the court system?
      “We know(through surveys) the public has a lot of faith in their court systems. But I daresay you would see that faith in the system is higher in states where there’s merit selection. In states like mine, where we’re one of seven states that have all-out partisan election of judges, we know that confidence is undermined by the unbelievably expensive campaigns. We would like to decrease the influence of money and politics on judges. All the courts have is the respect of the people. If we damage the respect people have for us, then we don’t have anything.”
    5. What will it take to change judicial selection processes?
      “It is through the legislature. Courts can’t do it by themselves. We can help by establishing judicial campaign oversight committees and some mechanisms like that, but we have to have legislative backing to take on a difficult subject. This is a difficult subject in many states that have partisan election of judges.”
    6. Why do you think this issue is getting so much attention?
      “I think it’s the amount of money. There are 40 million people in California. Alabama has 4.5 million. During the election cycles of 2002, 2004 and 2006, in the state of California to retain their judges … all of those judges for the appellate courts spent less than $300,000. In that same six years, or three election cycles, candidates for appellate courts in Alabama spent $30 million.”
    7. Do these contributions actually affect outcomes of cases?
      “You can’t help but expect the public to think that those contributions would impact a judge’s actions on a case. The polling is showing that even judges believe that it has an impact.”
    8. You have said judges need to work with other branches to resolve some of these problems. Why is that important?
      “Judges are the gatekeepers to the most expensive services the state provides or the most expensive budget items—whether it’s a prison cell, jail cell, juvenile detention cell, mental health bed, foster home … We need to be at the table as a resource. It’s up to legislature to enact or establish the policy, but we definitely need judges at the table to help the process in terms of informing legislators of what the issues are.”
    9. What can affect the interbranch relationship and create hurdles to getting things accomplished?
      “We know there are tensions that run between the branches. It ends up that when there’s an argument between (the) legislature and governor … the court has to decide one way or another, which is again why we are so vulnerable, why we end up not being funded like we should be funded. We have states that they have not raised judges’ salaries in 10, 12 years. Judicial salaries are a significant way the legislature can perhaps unintentionally injure and impact the fair and impartial courts by keeping us from getting the quality of judges that we need.”
    10. Is there enough transparency in our court systems?
      “I’m convinced that there’s not. The public needs to be aware of what we’re doing. What is it they say? ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’ It really is true. It also improves accountability; we need to be held accountable just like any other branch. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. Some judges are not as understanding of our responsibility of educating the public, our responsibility of increasing access.”