June 2011 Issue
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.
The polls had closed only hours earlier when the electronic complaint sailed across the virtual transom over the federal courthouse door in downtown Miami just shy of 2 a.m. on Nov. 3, hitting the docket with a resounding thud.
Nearly two-thirds of the Florida voters who went to the polls the day before had cast ballots in favor of two state constitutional amendments that for the first time directly restrain lawmakers when they set out to draw new district lines for seats in the U.S. House and for both chambers of the Florida legislature.
OK, call him an actor—or even a used car salesman—Sam Adam Jr. doesn’t care. He did, after all, minor in acting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. At one point he could see his life going in that direction. But now he’s a defense lawyer, and a very good one. And all he cares about is what a jury thinks.