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Midyear Meeting

Public Hearing on Judiciary Funding Draws Tales of Courts Begging for Pens, Jury Trials Halted

Posted Feb 9, 2011 8:23 PM CDT
By James Podgers

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Corrected: Tales recounted by a parade of witnesses at an ABA public hearing Wednesday painted a disturbing picture of how courts around the United States are being affected by budget cutbacks as state governments continue to reel from economic woes.

The Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, appointed by ABA President Stephen N. Zack in August, held its first public hearing on the opening day of the 2011 ABA Midyear Meeting in Atlanta.

Co-chairs David Boies and Theodore B. Olson, along with other members of the task force heard, for instance, from Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein about how the court has taken to soliciting vendors for free pens and pencils. Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick told the task force about his decision to suspend civil jury trials in the state in 2009 to save money.

In Michigan, many state court judges are going without health insurance because the state only pays their salaries, and many counties simply don’t have the money to cover the cost of insurance. In another state, courts aren’t accepting filings because they can’t afford paper to make copies. And Manuel Medrano, a lawyer and television legal analyst in Los Angeles, testified that, because courts are engaging in stricter enforcement of fines to come up with much-needed cash, poor people who can’t afford to pay them are more frequently going to jail instead.

“We are on a slippery slope that tends toward justice for some rather than justice for all,” warned Kim M. Keenan, general counsel for the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore.

Other witnesses told the task force that, in addition to the misery being caused for individuals, budgetary cutbacks are having an effect on the general economy in many states. According to a survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts, judicial systems in 29 states face budget cutbacks imposed by legislatures in the near future.

A report released today for the State Bar of Georgia estimates that recent budget cutbacks for the state courts have resulted in the loss of between 3,500 and 7,100 jobs throughout the state, and that the adverse affect on the state’s total economic output ranges anywhere from $337 million to more than $800 million a year.

“The enforcement of economic and property rights is the cornerstone of any free-market economy,” said Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz. That message was echoed by witnesses representing the business community.

The testimony left task force members with a sobering, but important, message, said Boies, who is chairman of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Olson is a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a former U.S. solicitor general.

Going into the hearing, task force members already had a good idea of the general themes they would hear, Boies said. But it wasn't until the hearing that task force members were aware of all the "detail, statistics, personal stories and the passion," Boies said. "It brings home with power the themes we’ve been talking about."

The plight of the courts and the parties who rely on them is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Midway through the hearing, Zack told the audience that Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, will propose a funding resolution that, among other things, would seek to reduce funding for the Legal Services Corp. for the remainder of fiscal 2011 from $420 million to $350 million. Over a year, that would translate into a 28 percent cut. The LSC distributes funding from Congress to local legal offices that serve low-income residents.

Commenting on the testimony at the hearing, Zack said, “Anybody who listens to this has got to be moved by the seriousness of this problem.”

Also see:

ABANow: "President Zack Statement Re: Proposed Cuts to Legal Services Corporation"

Last updated Feb. 15 to correctly note that jury trials were suspended during the year in 2009 and to correct a reference to the relevant fiscal year. The latest version also correctly identifies John Broderick as a former New Hampshire Supreme Court chief justice.


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