On February 27, the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession sponsored a lecture by ABA President William Robinson III about a critical issue facing the legal system – state court underfunding. Robinson outlined facts and figures that speak to the enormity of the crisis, and underscored what those numbers mean to those seeking justice and to the American concept of democracy.
In 2011, for example, 42 states cut court funding and 39 states suspended filling court clerk vacancies. Twenty-three states have reduced operating hours, and nine states have seen delays or relied less on jury trials. Six states have at one point closed their courts statewide for one day each week, which Robinson compared to closing the emergency room or fire department one day each week. The latter would invoke considerable community outrage, but there hasn’t been a similar reaction to the growing limitations on access to the state court system, even though it presents just as dire a crisis.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Robinson said. “It is written into the Constitution that there are three coequal branches of government. Our democracy is very dependent on the quality of the justice system to ensure its continuation, because civilizations don’t automatically last forever.”
Robinson explained that the funding crisis occurred because the courts have no voice in state legislatures, since judges do not lobby and therefore cannot push for more funding. He recognized that state budgets nationwide are currently stretched thin, but said that prioritizing becomes even more important in such conditions. As an example of skewed priorities, he pointed out that in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio, the judicial budget is just over $6 million, while the recreation budget is more than $23 million. He encouraged law students to use their special role in society to work to readjust these priorities and expand access to justice.
“As officers of the court, we have privileges and responsibilities,” he said. “We are more than a cash flow source for the firms to which we belong. We are more to the community than just somebody down the street. We have no more sacred responsibility than standing up and speaking out for our courts. It is our time to make a difference – write to our legislatures, publish what we can, and get people thinking about this subject because it is critical to the future of this country.”