Gavel Grab

Warning Sounded About Court Funding Cuts

The stories about courts grappling with funding cuts in hard economic times keep getting grimmer, and they’re coming at a time when courts need more resources, not less.

Those are the twin themes sounded in a compelling Los Angeles Times commentary, entitled “America’s judiciary: Courting disaster,” by Adam Skaggs and Maria da Silva of the Brennan Center for Justice.

The op-ed touches on some of the most vivid examples of state budget cutbacks that are jeopardizing courts around the country: 350 New York court employees laid off, and part-time judges volunteering to sit on the bench as a result; the potential closing, or limiting of public access, to all but one of five courthouses in Jefferson County, Alabama, this month due to lack of security funding; and the dire projected impact of $150 million in proposed cuts to courts in California, following on the heels of a $200 million reduction.

The timing is terrible, the authors contend:

“These cuts are coming at precisely the time when courts desperately need more, not fewer, resources. State courts confront elevated numbers of foreclosure filings, consumer debt proceedings and domestic violence cases — all of which rise in tough economic times.”

Moreover, the courts are different than other agencies of government and “have a constitutional duty to resolve criminal and civil cases.” When courts are weakened, there also are long-term harmful impacts on local and even state economies. Skaggs and da Silva offer no sweeping solution, yet they sound a fundamental warning:

“Of course, court administrators must actively pursue cost-saving practices. But courts are the foundation for the rule of law on which the well-being of our democracy depends. As a result, when policymakers debate budget proposals, they must provide courts with resources sufficient to preserve the ability to deliver justice.

“‘Justice for all’ cannot be a bargaining chip traded away during tough economic times.”

The Brennan Center is a JAS partner.

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