The just-passed Kansas courts budgets illustrate several trends you can find, in differing degrees, in many statehouses this spring: Shifting control back to locals after years of centralized management; tying any new funding to specific reforms or specific spending, like new computer systems; and increasing filing fees in ways that will increase funding, but nobody knows how much. Oh, and of course the threat of lost jobs and reduced services accompanies those trends.
Kansas court officials told the Associated Press that they are “unsure” if the new budget will allow them to avoid “furloughs.” Lawmakers approved $2 million toward a shortfall of some $8.25 million, with another $4 million or so expected from new filing fees. But the first $3.1 million of that money is earmarked for a new electronic filing system, not the operational shortfalls.
Meanwhile, any of the increases are tied to reducing the state Supreme Court power. Under the new law, local courts will select their own management and deal with their own budgets. Critics contend that measure reduces the ability to “spread around” funding to meet shifting demands.
With the nation’s largest trial court (Los Angeles) and a reputation for litigation, maybe it makes sense that California is leading the way in “court funding crisis.” In what may become a national talking point, given the Golden State’s influence, advocates of increased court funding are positioning the issue as a civil right debates.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauyehas has taken the lead, telling lawmakers and anyone else who will listen that “… as long as the [judicial] branch is underfunded, we will continue to see harmful and astonishing delays.” She also pushes past the usual challenges facing criminal justice systems to cite civil court problems, like civil disputes involving business, discrimination, employment, family matters, foster care and personal injury.
“It’s tragic that 50 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, California faces a different type of civil rights crisis,” she has said. “It is not about the law. It is about access to it.”
The topic is likely to heat up with California’s looming June budget deadlines. Last year’s budgets prompted street protests and this year, with the state carrying a surplus for the first time in years, will bring calls for reinstatement of previous funding. Speaking to a joint legislative session in the Assembly Chamber at the state capitol earlier this year, Cantil-Sakauye asked for partnership across the government to address what has been nearly half a billion dollars in cumulative budget cuts since 2008. She said the reductions have deprived more than 2 million Californians of access to a local court and have had a particularly negative effect on civil cases, which cede precedence to criminal justice.
You can read of her more recent budget-boosting efforts here
With the “law year” ending on June 30, this weekend offers a two-for-one as many communities also hose Law Day events (it was Thursday). As they note in the Washington, D.C. Bar Association “… in the tradition ofLaw Day, each year the WBA and the WBALF hosts the Annual Law Day Dinner on the first Saturday of May. That event is a highlight of the legal calendar, drawing about 500 people to the formal dinner.
So be sure to, as they say, check your local listings.
May 1 is, of course, Law Day. It was set aside to honor the idea that our nation embraces the rule of law, even in an era when reduced funding has some contending that access to civil courts has become a civil rights issue. If you want to check out the history or some of the cool activities, a good place to start is with one of the country’s senior courts management groups, the National Center for State Courts.
Sara Warner, publisher of the California Courts Monitor, has a national Huffington Post column outlining how a North Carolina bankruptcy case might uncover enough scandal to become a Democratic political liability. In particular, she says the legal system is thinking in terms of “claimants” instead of thinking in terms of “victims.” She even calls for a Senate investigation. See the story here.