Friday, April 8, 2011

Cautionary Instruction: Judicial systems on the chopping block

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
April 08, 2011

As state judicial budgets shrink, is democracy at stake?

Two years ago, the New York Times opined that slashing judicial budgets jeopardized “something beyond basic fairness, public safety and even the rule of law. It weakens democracy.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projected that 44 states will have budget shortfalls in 2012. Only five states have a larger projected shortfall than Pennsylvania’s $4.2 billion.

The budget crunch is beginning to have an impact on court systems across the country and will in turn affect those who look to the courts to right a wrong, seek protection or pursue the just imposition of punishment.

Within the last month at least three states have sounded the alarm.

New York's Chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman, said recently that the reduction in financing would require hundreds of layoffs -- at least -- and would include courthouse personnel and not just back-office staff, according to the New York Times.

“It will have a tremendous impact on the system,” Judge Lippman said in a telephone interview with the Times. “At a minimum, you’re going to see delays in the administration of justice, without question.”

The cuts in court funding came two months after Governor Andrew Cuomo took on the judiciary for not agreeing to a 10-percent reduction in spending that he imposed on state agencies. New York has the fourth highest projected budget shortfall at $10 billion.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille asked for $348 million for 2011-12, considerably more than the $277 million that was recommended in the state budget, according to the Post-Gazette.

There are now just over 1,000 judges in the state system -- 550 magisterial district judges, 460 Common Pleas judges and 31 in the three appellate courts. Justice Castille told the Post-Gazette he intends to trim about 50 district magistrates. The number of Common Pleas judges can be reduced only through new legislation.

Minnesota -- where the budget shortfall represents 23.6 percent of the entire state budget -- may be a harbinger of what court systems across the country will be facing in upcoming budget negotiations. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea recently lamented the critically underfunded judiciary. However, she didn’t ask for more money, she simply pleaded for no further cuts.

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