By the time you read this column, the legislature will have been in session for several weeks. Most observers expect the legislative session will be devoid of the fiscal drama of last year. Barring a substantial shift in the budget forecast, the budget will not likely be front and center this year. Bonding, football, and a smattering of possible constitutional amendments are on the menu. Once the redistricting decisions are announced, legislators will be anxious to complete their business and return to their newly formed districts to get to know their new constituents.
Balancing Budget Requests
Although the nation’s economy appears to have stabilized for the moment and we all hope that the recovery continues and strengthens, many of us continue to watch the economic indicators with caution. Let’s be realistic. The profound budgetary issues facing the state and federal governments were decades in the making, and correcting them will likely take many more years. Governments will continually have to grapple with balancing budget requests from competing worthwhile interests. Many of those interests are represented by well-funded and focused groups with sophisticated “government relations” staffs.
We are all aware of the very real economic challenges faced by our entire judicial system, including the courts, civil legal services, and the public defenders. It is not hyperbole to state that past cuts in funding have imposed hardships that continue to have a significant impact on the entire society. Closed courthouses, delays in justice due to short staffing, the inability to meet 80 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor, the 20 percent increase in the ranks of the poor since 2008, and public defenders shouldering caseloads many times greater than the recommended guidelines: these are but a few illustrations of the trend. Underfunding of the judicial system has gone on so long it truly has become an incongruous, chronic crisis. Compounded by the lack of public understanding of our system of government, misunderstanding of the appropriate role of the courts and the judicial system, and an abandonment of civic education in the schools, the chronic crisis threatens to become permanent.
Preserving the Judicial System
Notably, over 96 percent of all litigation in this country occurs in state courts; but state courts, on average, account for only 2 percent of state budgets. According to the National Center for State Courts, state courts in 42 states had their funding reduced in 2011. To cope with budgetary constraints, 39 states are not filling clerk vacancies, 34 states have laid-off staff, and 23 states have reduced court hours. Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association, recently stated that “If our legal system isn’t accessible, then it can’t be just and it won’t be fair.”
Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, like her predecessors, has done yeoman’s work effectively advocating for court funding in Minnesota and making the court system more efficient. As a direct result of the good efforts of Justice Gildea and others, the courts achieved a hold-harmless budget last year. Public defenders came out of the session with a very modest increase. Unfortunately, an absolutely crucial part of the justice system, civil legal services, did not fare as well, sustaining a 6 percent cut at the state government level. According to the ABA, Minnesota is one of 18 states that either reduced or eliminated funding for civil legal aid in 2011. Not all states cut legal services budgets. Seven jurisdictions, including Alaska, Delaware, DC, Hawaii, Nevada, New York, and West Virginia actually increased funding.
Unlike many other entities seeking state money, the justice system does not have a well-funded, easily identifiable and influential constituency ready, willing, and able to pick up the banner and advocate for adequate funding. As members of the bar/officers of the court, we are the persons uniquely qualified to be stalwarts for the system. We understand the rule of law, the invaluable role played by an impartial judiciary, the critical importance of enabling everyone to have meaningful access to justice, and the fundamental fairness of permitting a person facing a loss of liberty to be assigned counsel who is not unduly burdened or overworked. Less than 15 percent of the legislators in Minnesota today are lawyers. Legislators and the public need our help to understand, and it is our individual responsibility to do what we can to ensure that the judicial system, all parts of the system, thrive as a vital part of our democracy.
To assist and partner with the courts, civil legal services, and the public defenders in meeting Minnesotans’ needs for a fully funded and adequately supported justice system, we have established The AMICUS Society: Advocates for Justice. MSBA past-president Lew Remele has agreed to chair this important initiative that is intended to become a fixture in our association for many years to come. All members of the MSBA are able to join the Society and those who join by July 1, 2012, will be designated Founding Members. Contact me at email@example.com for more information or to sign up.
The only cost associated with membership is a commitment of five hours each year to help ensure the vitality and sustainability of the judicial system. Such activities might include, e.g., organizing lawyers in your legislative district to coordinate support activities, meeting with legislators on the importance of the system and its components, or educating the public on the rule of law and the role of the judicial system. Each of us can make a difference in countless ways. A Founders Reception will be hosted this summer by Chief Justice Gildea and other leaders of the judicial system at the Judicial Center in St. Paul.
Thank you for playing your part.