Welcome to the world of federal “sequestration.”
Wait, stay with me. I know. There are as many opinions about this as there are shoes in my mother’s closet, but one thing seems clear: what began with the enactment of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in 19851 and its call for mandatory budget cuts if Congress failed to meet its budget reduction deadlines has now resulted in just that. As of this writing, “sequestrations” began just a week ago and although the total impact has yet to be either fully explained or experienced, changes are occurring, cuts are being realized, and programs are being affected as we speak.
This column is not a review of our nation’s budgetary woes, nor is it a referendum on how or indeed whether we balance the federal checkbook. Those discussions are being held, blogged, tweeted and broadcast everywhere and anywhere by people who seem convinced that they know best. The First Amendment is a beautiful thing.
This column is a loud and clear request to keep access to justice issues in the front of our cost cutting brains, because it is worth the underline to say that our third branch of government is what guarantees this democracy. Our local, state and national courts cannot suffer further funding cuts and come out of this unscathed.
Although it’s a challenge to separate the reality from the hype when discussing impact of sequestration on our court system, it is a necessary dialogue, and numbers and potential impact must be shared. It is undisputable that federal courts, many of which have had to cut spending in recent years, are bracing for further reductions as federal sequestration kicks in. Numbers suggest that federal court funding will drop another five percent in 2013 as a result. That is cutting past sinew and into bone say most experts, and because some expenditures such as judicial pay are untouchable, what is touchable is being touched with a sledgehammer.
This has translated into forced layoffs resulting in understaffed courts, failure to modernize computers and necessary software, the inability to provide even basic administrative services to citizens and practitioners,2 delayed civil trials and even limited hours and days of court accessibility. (#justice-delayed-is-justice-denied)
In response, the American Bar Association recognized inadequate court funding as a priority issue in 2012 and again this year in 2013. At the ABA Midyear meeting in Dallas last month the ABA Board of Governors passed a series of resolutions including the following:
RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal elected officials, as they consider deficit reduction for fiscal year 2013 and beyond, to maintain the ability of individuals, as well as business and other organizations, to have access to justice by assuring that…the federal courts receive funding adequate to permit them to perform their constitutional functions effectively and efficiently...
Lets face it, when our rights are infringed upon, our one place to go is the courts. They protect us from abuses of power by corporations or government officials, and protect our most basic Constitutional rights. When access to justice is being compromised because of continued funding cuts, our very liberties are at stake.
So what can we, as members of one of the strongest metropolitan bar associations in this country, do?
First of all, recognize that the funding crisis in our courts does not discriminate. It is an issue to be sure on local, state and national levels.
Secondly, know and communicate that there are very real effects from lack of funding that translate into our citizens and our business owners not being able to rely on our courts for timely relief. That most certainly negatively impacts our economy.
Connect the dots and make the argument that although we are truly blessed with high quality judicial officers who thankfully have chosen public service, they are too often forced to swim upstream in an underfunded court system. We must give our judges the tools they need to do their jobs or you can be sure that our best and our brightest will choose other paths.
Finally, given government spending is now trending wildly unpopular and that too often the general public sees the courts as “just another agency,” remind those that will listen that indeed it is not. Flashback to effective civics classes that underline that pesky separation of powers, and recognize and communicate that only an independent judiciary with predictable and sustainable funding truly fulfills its constitutional obligation. After all, a well-functioning judicial branch is a constitutional imperative, not an optional luxury.
1 Yes, that was 1985 when many of our young lawyers now were being happily conceived, probably during the congressional debate itself.
2 Indeed, bring your own paper if you want copies and be prepared to be invoiced every time you fax the court a pleading.