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IBA Editorial: Court Funding in Critical Condition Nationwide

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IBA-hebenstreitOne of the corner stones of our American system of jurisprudence is free and open access to the trial courts and judicial system. The ability of businesses to solve their disputes in an orderly fashion and the predictability of outcomes encourages business to be conducted in our country. The ability of our prosecutors to charge, and our system to try those accused of crimes, helps insure the pubic safety. It is a concept dating back to the Founding Fathers. But that system is in jeopardy throughout our country.

There has never been an overabundance of cash to fund the Courts, but the system has been dramatically worsened as a result of the recession and the resulting decrease in tax revenues. Without adequate sources of funding, it is easy for legislatures to cut the budgets of the judicial branch of the government—the branch that cannot raise taxes.

According to a report of the ABA, a fully funded court system receives 1 to 2% of state or local budgets. Not a significant line item, but one frequently cut. Unfortunately, unlike many other state or local agencies, the largest expense of the judicial system is the cost of personnel. To cut personnel typically translates to reduced services or a longer delay in providing the same services. In order to cope with the loss of revenue, courts around the country have adopted dramatic measures. Some courts in Iowa have closed their clerk’s office one day per week. A recent article about the San Francisco Superior Courts reported that some 40% of employees were going to suffer layoffs and 25 of 63 courtrooms were to be shuttered. Many states have delayed filling judicial vacancies and others have frozen judicial income for inordinately long periods. Others have furloughed clerical staff and others have cut the ability to have a timely jury trial.

The Courts in Georgia have seen a 25% reduction in funding over the last two years. Their current funding represents only 0.89% of the state’s overall budget. That has resulted in criminal cases taking over a year to be resolved and a reduction in court time for civil cases.

Unfortunately, the budget cuts have also come at a time when there has been an increase in need. As a result of the recession, the number of foreclosures, debt collections, and divorce/family law cases has increased dramatically. Florida has seen more than its share of foreclosure cases and has experienced quite long delays in the foreclosure process. This has resulted in many abandoned properties becoming eyesores and further deteriorating the economic value of neighborhoods. The ABA estimated that in Florida alone there had been a $10 billion dollar loss due to quantifiable costs and expenses attributed solely to court delays.

Another factor contributing to the domino effect is the rise in pro se litigants. As the need for legal services increases and the ability to pay for legal services decreases, more parties are choosing to go it alone. This also creates more pressure on the court staff and the judicial system. Funds for the Legal Services Organization have been slashed by Congress this year with the future looking even bleaker. In Indiana, the IOLTA funds have historically been helpful in funding pro bono and indigent legal service providers. Due to the lower interest rates, the funds that used to flow into the coffers from all of our trust accounts has virtually gone away—at a time when the need has risen tremendously. The Indiana Pro Bono Commission is currently weighing its options to deal with the situation on a statewide basis. The only thing for certain is that with fewer funds, the ability to serve the needs of Hoosiers will necessarily be reduced.

Until the current budget for the City of Indianapolis was recently published, it was feared that the Marion County Superior Courts would suffer significant cuts. The Executive Committee of the Superior Courts had been reviewing options how to deal with a smaller budget. Fortunately, according to two members of the Executive Committee, Judges John Hanley and Marc Rothenberg, the budget for the Courts as currently proposed is a flat line—no major reductions, but no more money. This is certainly good news and we applaud the efforts of our leaders from both parties. However with the increased need for services coupled with the increased cost of providing the same level of service, a flat line approach does amount to a budget reduction. Let’s hope that in the process of passing a budget, the City County Council does not negatively modify the flat line approach. I urge the legal community to stay informed and to communicate to our county leadership the importance of access to the courts for both civil and criminal matters.•

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  1. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  2. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  3. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

  4. "...not those committed in the heat of an argument." If I ever see a man physically abusing a woman or a child and I'm close enough to intercede I will not ask him why he is abusing her/him. I will give him a split second to cease his attack and put his hands in the air while I call the police. If he continues, I will still call the police but to report, "Man down with a gunshot wound,"instead.

  5. And so the therapeutic state is weaonized. How soon until those with ideologies opposing the elite are disarmed in the name of mental health? If it can start anywhere it can start in the hoosiers' slavishly politically correct capital city.

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