American courts are facing perhaps their worst crisis in decades. When the recession kicked into high gear, courts already besieged with heavy dockets found themselves taking on even more cases as growing numbers of individuals and families faced foreclosures, bankruptcies, collections, employment disputes and domestic relations matters. Many of those people opted for self-representation, a choice that puts even more pressure on judges and court personnel.
But now the other shoe has dropped, as state legislators desperate to hold down spending and forestall tax increases have begun slashing budgets for the courts and other justice services. The National Center for State Courts estimates that judicial systems in more than half the states face budget cutbacks.
It’s a recipe for disaster, says ABA President Stephen N. Zack, and “the potential to lose the rule of law in our country is very real.” As soon as he took office in August, Zack appointed the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System to take a hard look at the issue and consider policy initiatives. The task force heard just how bad the problem is at its first public hearing in February, when members of the judiciary and other witnesses told of staff cutbacks, court closures, suspension of civil trials, and even entreaties to vendors for free pens and pencils.