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.
“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
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.
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.
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.”•