8:31am

Thu April 12, 2012
Around the Nation

Sue Me? Not A Chance This Year

If you feel like suing somebody, you'd better be patient.

Due to state budget woes, courts all across the country are cutting back on personnel and the number of hours or even days that they're open. That's causing long delays, especially when it comes to civil litigation.

"There's no question that there's been a pretty devastating impact in lots of states in how we deliver services," says Kevin Burke, president of the American Judges Association.

Courts in Kansas will be closed this Friday — the first of five Fridays the courts will shut down over the next two months, the result of furloughs for 1,500 state employees.

Kansas is only the latest state to reduce access to its court system due to budget cuts of up to 30 percent.

Courts in Oregon will be closed for even more Fridays this year. One circuit in Georgia stopped hearing civil cases altogether to devote its remaining time and attention to criminal cases. Cases in some parts of North Carolina and Ohio ground to a halt completely because the courts couldn't afford to buy paper.

Such delays are not just creating inconvenience for people trying to claim money from landlords (or tenants) or fight traffic tickets. Court cuts are hitting people where they live.

A simple divorce that might have taken six months now can easily linger on for a full year. Arguably even more disruptive are the longer waits to resolve custody disputes.

"The impact on people in great distress, such as abused women seeking temporary restraining orders, is beyond measure in money," says Jon Streeter, president of the State Bar of California.

Nearly Universal Cuts

Courts are a basic function of government, and the judiciary is meant to be a separate and co-equal branch of government. Yet court systems rely on the political branches to provide them with funding.

For all the attention paid to the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary, the reality is that more than 95 percent of the nation's legal caseload is handled by state, county and municipal courts. Still, courts typically make up less than 1 percent of most state budgets.

With states facing severe shortfalls in recent years, nearly all of them have cut judicial funding. Courts might not cost states much, compared with education and health care, but they tend not to have the same sort of active political constituencies lobbying on their behalf, either.

According to a survey by the National Center for State Courts, 42 states cut court funding last year, meaning most courts have shrunk their staff, while about half have reduced hours.

"It can take up to a year from the time you first get a [traffic] ticket until you get a trial date," says Ann Donlan, communications director for San Francisco Superior Court.

'The Bleeding Has Stopped'

Judges in most states sense that legislators have grown more aware of the challenges raised by funding cuts and aren't likely to cut much further. "It appears that the bleeding has stopped," Streeter says.

But California and other states may still cut more, depending on their overall fiscal health. And courts are still adjusting to reductions that have already been made.

In Iowa, for instance, the judicial branch now has fewer employees than it did 24 years ago. Over the same period, the number of case filings in the state has increased by 54 percent.

That's led to long lines and lots of delays for simple matters such as retrieving documents as well as resolving more complex cases such as housing foreclosures, which have grown immensely as a share of court dockets in recent years.

Criminal Delays

And all of that has to take a back seat to crime. With fewer workers and some courtrooms shut down entirely, courts are devoting a greater share of their resources to criminal cases, because of the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial.

"It's definitely true that criminal cases take precedence over civil cases," says Burke, who is a judge in Minneapolis.

Of course, speed is relative, and even criminal cases are dragging on longer these days. In part, that's because budgets for public defenders' offices are being cut just as much. Florida, for instance, is losing about a third of its legal aid attorneys.

Trials that take an extra year or so to resolve not only add to expense, but heighten uncertainty as well. "In the criminal context, people move and the type of persons who are witnesses tend to be more transient," says Gregory Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts.

No Money To Experiment

Financial constraints on criminal courts could lead, ultimately, to higher costs for states in the form of more incarceration. Many states have launched initiatives over the past few years to combat recidivism and keep repeat offenders from returning to jail.

Budget cuts have left less money for specialized courts that handle matters such as drugs and mental health issues, however. That leads to overscheduled judges being more likely to hand out prison sentences, argue some criminal defense attorneys.

But it's the civil backlogs that are gaining the most attention. The American Bar Association has set up a task force to address underfunding of the courts that is headed by two of the nation's most prominent attorneys, David Boies and Theodore Olson — the legal combatants in Bush v. Gore who have more recently teamed up to promote same-sex marriage rights.

Other Strange Bedfellows

You'd expect trial lawyers to be up in arms about courts cutting back. How can plaintiffs ever hope to achieve a settlement if the people they're suing know they won't see a courtroom for years to come?

The court funding situation has become so acute, however, that trial lawyers are finding rare common cause with chambers of commerce and other business groups who recognize that courts are key to enforcing contracts.

"When states financially starve their judiciaries, they inadvertently create environments toxic to economic growth," Lisa A. Rickard and Bill Robinson III, respectively the presidents of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform and the American Bar Association, wrote in a joint opinion piece published in USA Today.

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