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TCL > August 2012 Issue > From the ABA President

August 2012       Vol. 41, No. 8       Page  26
In and Around the Bar
American Bar Association

From the ABA President
by Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson

 

About the Author

Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is President of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.


We all experience delays that slow down and frustrate our daily lives, from traffic jams on a city street to long lines at a grocery store. But some delays are more than an inconvenience—these delays threaten the very core of our constitutional democracy.

For several years, the American Bar Association (ABA) has identified a troubling trend in our state courts resulting from increasing workloads and declining budgets. State judiciaries handle approximately 95% of all cases filed in the United States, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, states reported 106 million incoming trial court cases—the most in thirty-five years. Anecdotally, we know that trend has continued as more people represent themselves and legislators add more laws to the books.

Despite these workload increases, NCSC says forty-two states reduced their court budgets in fiscal year 2011. Although the Colorado Judicial Branch received an increase of $22 million, the state has experienced its share of funding cuts, a hiring freeze, and judicial vacancies. Courts around the country have made difficult decisions just as you have in Colorado. New York’s courts end promptly at 4:30 in the afternoon to avoid overtime costs. Massachusetts has lost more than 1,100 trial court employees through attrition. The lines at Sacramento, California courts are so long that people bring lawn chairs to use while they wait.

People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach the courtroom. If our legal system isn’t accessible, then it can’t be just and it won’t be fair.

The constitutional argument for sustainable funding for our courts is simple: The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government responsible for protecting our rights. The practical argument is equally compelling. The courts decide matters that go to the very core of our daily lives: when a parent petitions for custody of a child or when a family fights foreclosure of its home.

The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just 1% of a state’s entire budget—that’s often less than a state allocates for an Executive Branch agency. Members of the legal community are beginning to understand this situation.

Courts are doing their part to demonstrate efficiency and innovation, including those in Colorado. Aside from electronic payments and videoconferencing, the state’s judiciary is creating a statewide electronic filing system for all cases.

The ABA is continuing the work of its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, bringing together those affected by this crisis to discuss strategies to help our judiciary. The task force has created a venue to share court funding stories and creative ideas on its website at americanbar.org.

The ABA also is working with state and local bar associations to rethink how sensibly to spend taxpayer dollars to ensure public safety. In this area, Colorado has excelled by introducing innovative, targeted reforms. It passed a sentencing reform bill that supports rehabilitation over incarceration for some drug offenses. As a result, nearly $11 million will be saved per year, according to Michael L. Bender, Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. Finally, we must articulate what courts do and why they are so essential by more effectively educating legislators and the general public—especially young people—because that civic knowledge will drive a renewed dedication to the preservation of our justice system.

Courts must be open, available, and adequately staffed. No one would accept closing the local emergency room, the local fire house, or the local police station for one day a week. Our justice system is no different. Let’s join together to fight for this access, otherwise—No courts. No justice. No freedom.

© 2012 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved. Material from The Colorado Lawyer provided via this World Wide Web server is protected by the copyright laws of the United States and may not be reproduced in any way or medium without permission. This material also is subject to the disclaimers at http://www.cobar.org/tcl/disclaimer.cfm?year=2012.


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