A Silent Threat to the Rule of Law

Kudos to the New York Times for highlighting a serious problem that gets too little attention. Because of recession-era budget cuts at all levels of government, the judicial system is facing an unprecedented funding crisis. According to the Times, in the last three years, 42 states have reduced their judicial budgets, 34 states have laid off court employees, 39 are no longer filling clerk vacancies and 23 have reduced court operating hours. The results can be distressing:

Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein of the Georgia Supreme Court said that after two and a half years of budget cuts for her state’s courts, “it has gotten to the point where it is difficult to say that we are delivering the constitutionally required judicial system. . . . I don’t know that you would have a new business or corporation that would want to relocate in a state where you couldn’t get your contract disputes or your business disputes resolved in a timely fashion.”

The impact on individuals is even worse. In New Hampshire, two parents successfully sought visitation rights to their own children (who were forced to live with grandparents because of financial hardship) but were unable to see them for another three months because of delays in processing the court order. Another court in Ohio announced that it could not take new filings unless the litigants donated their own paper for the court’s use. In times of economic hardship, courts are called on more than ever to hear a variety of urgent consumer matters, including debt disputes, bankruptcy matters and related family law disputes.

The American Bar Association is trying to call attention to the issue by creating the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System. The Task Force is chaired by David Boies and former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, two prominent attorneys who are perhaps best known for representing opposing sides in Bush v. Gore.  In Texas, Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has been an outspoken advocate of properly funding the justice system.

As former ABA President Stephen Zack points out, funding of the judicial branch is not like funding bridges or libraries, as important as those may be. The inability of the judicial system to carry out its necessary functions threatens the rule of law, a critical element of any democratic society.

Posted: 12/5/2011 8:59:49 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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