Of the three branches of government, the judicial branch receives by far the least attention. With the exception of high-profile cases like the Affordable Care Act and Proposition 8 (dealing with same-sex marriage in California), the judiciary lacks the glamor of the presidency and the news coverage of congress (whose members are staples on television and radio throughout the year). Lost in all the media coverage surrounding the passage of a federal budget has been the struggle for courts to stay open across much of the country. As more and more courts close or cut back on their operating hours and their staffs, the average American’s access to the civil justice system is becoming greatly limited.
We posted an article over a year ago about such budget problems, titled “Underfunding of Judicial System Threatens Basic Nature of American Government.” The post cites an Economist article from September 2011 that says, “[I]n the last three years, most states have cut court funding by around 10-15%. In the past two years, 26 have stopped filling judicial vacancies, 34 have stopped replacing clerks, 31 have frozen or cut the salaries of judges or staff, 16 have furloughed clerical staff, and nine have furloughed judges. Courts in 14 states have reduced their opening hours, and are closed on some workdays.” Many courts are attempting to make ends meet by increasing filing fees for those who wish to bring civil suits, but this threatens Americans’ equal right to justice, a right promised in the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.
This is a growing problem in large states like California, whose governor recently celebrated a rare budget surplus. What Joanna Doroshaw points out in her article “The Slow Death of Justice in California”, however, is that much of this money came from slashing civil courts’ budgets: “Courthouse after courthouse is closing in California. In Los Angeles County, all courtrooms in 10 regional courthouses are closing…[T]he civil justice system [as opposed to the criminal justice system] principally will take the hit. Expenses will go up dramatically for litigants, who will have to travel far distances to courtrooms and pay for their own court reporters, obviously hitting hardest the economically disadvantaged.” She goes on to point out that over $1.3 billion in court funds have been cut in that state.
Even closer to home, in Union County, New Jersey, budget gaps created a backlog of 863 cases (as of July 2012), the largest the county had ever seen. The civil courts were forced to close entirely for over two months while criminal courts continued to operate as usual. This means that claims like personal injuries and medical malpractice were simply postponed over a period of months while victims struggled to have their cases heard.
Judge Michael L. Stern of the Los Angeles Superior Court sums up the situation suitably, “The public should not be content with the dislocation and delays in resolving civil disputes caused by court funding shortages. Equal access to justice under the law demands more. It requires action by everyone to make the elected officials responsible for funding our courts aware that the words ‘equal justice under the law’ cannot become just another hollow slogan.”