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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. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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