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The Crisis Grows: Concerns Over Funding for State Courts Dominate ABA Annual Meeting

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Photograph courtesy of Tourism Toronto.

This year’s ABA Annual Meeting was held in Toronto during a mood of deepening economic gloom: Though the U.S. debt ceiling was raised, one rating agency’s drop of the nation’s credit rating and international economic developments helped trigger several days of plunging stock prices. But the dominant economic concern at the annual meeting itself was the growing fiscal crisis facing state courts throughout the country.

Outgoing ABA President Stephen N. Zack of Miami hammered away at the issue in most of the many speeches he gave during the meeting, including his farewell address to the House of Delegates as his one-year term came to a close. And incoming President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III quickly picked up the theme in his opening remarks to the House. Robinson is the member in charge of the Florence, Ky., office of Frost Brown Todd. His term will run through the end of the 2012 annual meeting next August in Chicago.

The nation’s economic crisis “has resulted in additional cuts in funding for our already underfunded state courts,” Robinson told the House. “This threatens the very viability of our entire justice system in America and puts at risk the third co-equal branch of government.” He pledged that the ABA would lead the way in seeking to build coalitions in support of increased funding for the courts.

Robinson said he has directed the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, which Zack appointed, to continue studying the funding problem and develop recommendations. The task force is co-chaired by David Boies, the Armonk, N.Y.-based chair of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, and Theodore B. Olson, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, D.C. (Zack is a partner in the Miami office of the Boies firm.)


For its part, the 566-member house, which sets ABA policy, approved a resolution by the task force that calls for bar associations, lawyers and members of the judiciary to document the impact of funding cutbacks on the courts, create coalitions to advocate for adequate funding, and urge legislatures to make preservation of the courts a priority.

Those steps also were recommended by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a program on the court funding crisis. O’Connor expressed concern that the full scope of the threat to state courts posed by state funding cutbacks is not recognized even by those within the legal community.

“No one, not even lawyers and judges, understands what a financial bind the courts are in,” O’Connor said in an interview with the ABA Journal. As a result, she noted, “they’re not ready for the political fights” that may be necessary to ensure that legislatures fund the courts at adequate levels. “We have to wake them up.”

In effect, the program served as a strategy session on how to convince legislatures to treat funding for the courts as a priority even during recessionary times. And O’Connor—who served as majority leader of the Arizona Senate before embarking on her judicial career—had plenty of suggestions on how to do that.

First, she said, “we need advocacy on this issue by lawyers at all levels.” And those advocates need to have access to legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle through one-on-one meetings. It also will help to bring members of the business community into the effort because “legislators will listen to what they say,” she said. Public hearings can play an important role in advocacy efforts, O’Connor said. Legislators should know about them, and media coverage should be encouraged. And while facts and figures are important, she said, “make sure to drop in some sob stories.”

Finally, O’Connor said, “if things get real bad, buy some beer and Mexican food and have them all over.”

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