Monday, April 22, 2013

Court Funding is Biggest Barrier to Justice for Citizens

Patrick Kelly, Guest Alumni Blogger

I believe the current court funding crisis is the greatest threat to our justice system and access to justice for our citizens I have seen in my 42 years of practice. I have focused upon this as the number one issue affecting the public and lawyers in California and have made it an integral part of every speech and discussion I have had since taking office in October. Examples of the carnage caused by these funding cuts exist everywhere in
California -- seven courthouse closures in Fresno, four courthouse closures in San Bernardino County and 10 courthouse closures in Los Angeles County, just to name a few examples.

The real toll is to the users of our courts -- the citizens of California who have a constitutional right to full and fair access to our justice system. Not only are we losing the neighborhood court system that provided access to all, but also user fees have escalated to the point that we are moving toward a disastrous pay-for-play system that is certainly not what the framers of our Constitution had in mind when they defined our rights. Moreover, the framers of our Constitution could not have envisioned a system where the rich have access through private judging whereas those less affluent and the poor have to stand in a line that because of a decline in resources is growing longer. These cuts have also threatened small businesses, the very engine of
California's economic recovery. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated. Paraphrasing Alan Greenspan, one of the key elements of business growth is ready access to a justice system that provides prompt dispute resolution.

Some argue that despite the budget cuts to the branch over the past few years, the funding has remained relatively stable due to the use of backup funds. That statement does not even scratch the surface of the whole story and implies that somehow the courthouse closures and longer lines don't exist. The truth is that while other states that fund courts generally spend about 2 percent of their general fund on the court system, in California it is 1 percent. In fact, the share of court funding that comes from the state general fund in California has fallen from 56 percent to 20 percent since 2008.

As noted, much of the money used to yield the impression of "stability" has come from redirection of court construction funds into court operations ($891 million since 2008); mandatory spend down of reserves ($500 million); redirection of funds intended for statewide court programs ($414 million); and increases in user fees ($397 million). Thus the fact is "stability" has left the court with a decimated construction and maintenance program, an almost complete loss of reserve funds necessary for court operations and a much higher cost for access to the long courthouse lines. And it gets worse. The ability to take courthouse construction funds is almost over and there is little left in reserves. In short, the money movement devices have now run out and the state will have to step up or we have only seen the tip of a much bigger iceberg of courthouse closures and staff layoffs. All of this leads to the inescapable conclusion that justice is being denied, and the magnitude of that denial is growing with each passing day.

Next week: How to solve the crisis...

Patrick Kelly is the Western Region Managing Partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP and president of the California State Bar. A recipient of Loyola's Distinguished Alumni Award, he sits on the board of the Law School's Advocacy Institute and was elected to the Law School's Board of Overseers.

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