Kentucky voices: Funding cuts handcuff court system

September 22, 2011 

Across our nation, the public's access to justice is at risk because states are cutting their court budgets.

Fortunately, Kentucky has avoided the worst of the court funding problems we see elsewhere, but if we do not stay vigilant, our courts may face the same funding crises that plague our neighboring states.

For several years, the American Bar Association has observed a troubling trend in state court budgets — our judiciaries are being starved. In fiscal year 2010, 40 states — including Kentucky — cut funding for courts. While our governor and the Kentucky legislature deserve credit for restoring funding in this fiscal year, other court systems did not fare as well.

The judiciary is one of the three co-equal branches of government responsible for protecting our constitutional rights, deciding matters that go to the very core of our daily lives — like child custody cases — and protecting us from threats to our safety through criminal adjudication.

Yet courts typically receive just one percent or so of their state's entire budget. We do better in Kentucky, but in some states, the judiciary receives less funding than some executive branch agencies or less than it takes to build a school.

No state in America allocates more that 3.5 percent of its annual state operating budget to the judicial system.

As a consequence of shrinking budgets, courts are forced to make difficult decisions. Fifteen states have reduced the hours their courts are open. Twenty-six states have delayed filling critical judicial vacancies. In New Hampshire, all civil trials were delayed for a year.

But the cuts aren't limited to court hours and staff. A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse. In Alabama, a judge asked the charitable arm of a local bar association to donate money to help pay juror stipends.

Right now, San Francisco courts are trying to cope with chronic budget shortfalls and a growing backlog of cases following a $350 million budget cut. One court is so crowded that people arrive in the morning with lawn chairs to wait their turn in line, hoping they will reach the front before the court closes for the day. One woman filing for custody of her children and child support was forced to return — several days in a row — starting every time at the back of the line with her lawn chair.

San Francisco is a long way from Lexington, but imagine for a moment that you or someone you care about must stand in front of the bench to protect a life.

Maybe a power of attorney is needed because an elderly parent cannot make health care decisions any longer. Perhaps a child has been hurt in a serious car accident, and money is needed to pay the medical bills.

While we never think it will happen to someone we love, consider that your aunt, sister or daughter may become the victim of spousal abuse and need a restraining order.

In each of these cases, you, your friends or your family will need a court to be open. Tragically, inadequate funding means that in some places, the doors to the courthouse have a "closed" sign hanging on them. We expect that our courts will always have the resources to respond immediately to our needs, but that is no longer the case in many places.

People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach the courtroom. In Kentucky, we are much better off than many other states, but that will not be true if we lose sight of why our courts are important. Access to justice is a basic tenet of our society — it protects us. As a community, we must continue to advocate for our courts so that we always have a safe place to go when we are in need.

This Friday and Saturday in Lexington, chief justices, legal scholars, legal practitioners, bar leaders and representatives of the business community will join together for a national dialogue on the practical and constitutional impact of court underfunding.

Our goal is to ensure legislators and policymakers know that when judiciary budgets are cut, we put the rule of law at risk.

We simply cannot let that happen.

William T. Robinson III is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.

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