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As money for justice declines, many don’t see potential cost

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Persistent warnings about funding shortages for state and federal courts don’t appear to be registering with the public, a new poll concludes.

Three-fifths of people either believe that courts are properly funded or aren’t sure, according to a poll released in December by DRI, the Voice of the Defense Bar.

“There truly is a problem locally and nationally with the fact that the public does not understand about the underfunding of the judiciary,” said John Trimble, a former member of the DRI board of directors and chairman of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Committee on Improvements in the Judicial System.
 

trimble-john Trimble

“The general tenor of reporting about the judicial system on a national basis is to report the odd things that occur and not report on the business of how the courts are operating,” he said.

“It’s amazing that with all the high-profile warnings, literally thousands of newspaper articles, and all the effects of the funding shortage being played out in the nation’s courts system, that 60 percent of respondents either think there’s no funding problem or aren’t

court-funding

 sure there’s a funding problem,” DRI president Mike Weston said. “Given all the attention, the unawareness seems almost willful.”

But that may have changed somewhat when Chief Justice John Roberts in his year-end report implored Congress to restore funding for federal courts that he said had fallen to 1997 levels. He said the lack of funding particularly was impacting criminal proceedings, to the point of becoming “a genuine threat to public safety.”

“The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts,” Roberts said.

Sequestration early in 2013 slashed $350 million from the federal judiciary, according to the American Bar Association, on top of ongoing reductions in court budgets.

Chief Judge Richard Young of the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana believes a congressional budget deal reached late in 2013 could restore some of the cutbacks that had been mandated under sequestration. “It’s good news and not such good news,” Young said.

“The best projections are that appropriations will be probably close to 3 percent higher than we had … during sequestration,” he said. That would restore funding for federal courts roughly to the levels of 2010, but that’s still about 10 percent less than the federal judiciary’s budget should have been without sequestration, he said.

That mandated budget trimming “hit us pretty hard,” Young said. “The new budget that’s passed, assuming the increase that comes along with that, will give us some breathing room and eliminate a lot of the anxiety regarding furloughs.”

In the Southern District, Young said the court was able to avoid furloughs during sequestration because there were some retirements and positions were kept open. But the Bankruptcy Court was forced to make some layoffs and also leave vacant positions unfilled due to a drop in filings, Young said.


richard young Young

The federal court staff levels are currently such that Young believes further budget reductions would be difficult to withstand.

“We’re not like other government agencies,” he said, noting there are few court expenditures where significant cuts can be made besides salaries, rent and fees for public defenders and jurors. “There’s really nothing there that can take a significant cut or elimination.”

The District Court and Bankruptcy Court did become more efficient by consolidating their information technology departments, Young said.

The problem in Indiana courts isn’t as profound as in some states such as California, Trimble said. There, some courts are operating just three days a week, which has resulted in significant delays, and some of the state-owned courthouses are suffering severe neglect.

“Every state and every locality has its issues with judicial funding,” he said, while noting that judges and people in the courts often are reluctant to lobby for increases. “We have one branch of the government that is unprotected and underfinanced, and judges do the very best they can to make the most of what they have, and they’re not complainers as a group.”

For Indiana courts, a lack of judicial funding means a vast majority of judges have no legal clerks to perform research on cases that can require extensive and complex analysis, Trimble explained.

“The quality of our justice, the quality of decisions in civil cases, is certainly impacted by the ability of judges to do legal research,” he said.

Combined sources of funding to Indiana courts provided $386,772,020 to operate on in the calendar year 2012, according to the Judicial Services Report issued in November. That’s down from almost $400 million in 2009. At the same time, courts generated less revenue last year due in large part to a significant decline in the number of ordinance and infraction cases filed statewide.

A lack of funding also has slowed rollout of the Odyssey case management system around the state. Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson in 2013 persuaded the Legislature to increase case-filing fees earmarked for Odyssey, but many courts remain on the waiting list to join the system provided by the Division of State Court Administration.

Trimble said the needs can be even more basic. Many courtrooms around the state lack adequate security, for instance. “That’s one area we still have to pay some attention to,” he said.


Dickson Dickson

In his State of the Judiciary address Jan. 15, Dickson didn’t make a direct appeal for more funding before a non-budget session of the Legislature, but he stressed the courts are doing more with less.

“Indiana’s judges are very, very busy; we are extremely challenged but quite gratified every day; we could do even better with more resources,” he said.

Dickson noted the judiciary in Indiana spends only 9 cents for every $10 collected by local and state units of government. “The bottom line is that our judicial system provides enormous value to Hoosier citizens – and does so at a miniscule cost to taxpayers,” he said.

The DRI survey of 1,005 adults also found 75 percent of respondents said the option of suspending civil trials to ensure criminal defendants receive a speedy trial was unacceptable, even though several local, state and federal courts have warned of such a possibility without an easing of budgetary constraints.

“The message has to be that the courts can’t continue to operate efficiently without increases in appropriations,” Young said. “Case filings keep going up in District Court, criminal indictments keep going up. It all requires additional resources.”•
 

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  1. The $320,000 is the amount the school spent in litigating two lawsuits: One to release the report involving John Trimble (as noted in the story above) and one defending the discrimination lawsuit. The story above does not mention the amount spent to defend the discrimination suit, that's why the numbers don't match. Thanks for reading.

  2. $160k? Yesterday the figure was $320k. Which is it Indiana Lawyer. And even more interesting, which well connected law firm got the (I am guessing) $320k, six time was the fired chancellor received. LOL. (From yesterday's story, which I guess we were expected to forget overnight ... "According to records obtained by the Journal & Courier, Purdue spent $161,812, beginning in July 2012, in a state open records lawsuit and $168,312, beginning in April 2013, for defense in a federal lawsuit. Much of those fees were spent battling court orders to release an independent investigation by attorney John Trimble that found Purdue could have handled the forced retirement better")

  3. The numbers are harsh; 66 - 24 in the House, 40 - 10 in the Senate. And it is an idea pushed by the Democrats. Dead end? Ummm not necessarily. Just need to go big rather than go home. Nuclear option. Give it to the federal courts, the federal courts will ram this down our throats. Like that other invented right of the modern age, feticide. Rights too precious to be held up by 2000 years of civilization hang in the balance. Onward!

  4. I'm currently seeing someone who has a charge of child pornography possession, he didn't know he had it because it was attached to a music video file he downloaded when he was 19/20 yrs old and fought it for years until he couldn't handle it and plead guilty of possession. He's been convicted in Illinois and now lives in Indiana. Wouldn't it be better to give them a chance to prove to the community and their families that they pose no threat? He's so young and now because he was being a kid and downloaded music at a younger age, he has to pay for it the rest of his life? It's unfair, he can't live a normal life, and has to live in fear of what people can say and do to him because of something that happened 10 years ago? No one deserves that, and no one deserves to be labeled for one mistake, he got labeled even though there was no intent to obtain and use the said content. It makes me so sad to see someone I love go through this and it makes me holds me back a lot because I don't know how people around me will accept him...second chances should be given to those under the age of 21 at least so they can be given a chance to live a normal life as a productive member of society.

  5. It's just an ill considered remark. The Sup Ct is inherently political, as it is a core part of government, and Marbury V Madison guaranteed that it would become ever more so Supremely thus. So her remark is meaningless and she just should have not made it.... what she could have said is that Congress is a bunch of lazys and cowards who wont do their jobs so the hard work of making laws clear, oftentimes stops with the Sups sorting things out that could have been resolved by more competent legislation. That would have been a more worthwhile remark and maybe would have had some relevance to what voters do, since voters cant affect who gets appointed to the supremely un-democratic art III courts.

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