We all experience delays that slow down and frustrate our daily
lives, from traffic jams on a city street to long lines at a
grocery store. But some delays are more than an inconvenience --
these delays threaten the very core of our constitutional
For several years, the American Bar Association has observed a
troubling trend in state court budgets. In fiscal year 2010, 40
states -- including Massachusetts -- cut funding for their
judiciaries, and fiscal year 2011 isn't any better. Over the last
three years, Massachusetts has reduced spending for its courts by
These cuts are having effects, both big and small, on access to
justice around the country and in your state. A hiring freeze has
remained in effect since October 2008. The Massachusetts court
system has lost more than 1,100 trial court employees through
attrition, which constitutes a 15 percent reduction in the
workforce. Thirty-eight courts recently reduced the counter and
telephone hours of clerks and registers for staff to manage the
backlog of cases.
Courts around the country have made difficult decisions just as
they have in Massachusetts. New Hampshire delayed civil trials for
a year. A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could
be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the
courthouse. In Alabama, a judge asked the charitable arm of a local
bar association to donate money to help pay juror stipends.
People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach
the courtroom. If our legal system isn't accessible, then it can't
be just and it won't be fair.
The constitutional argument for sustainable funding for our courts
is simple: The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government
responsible for protecting our rights. The practical argument is
equally compelling. The state courts, which handle approximately 95
percent of all legal cases in the United States, decide matters
that go to the very core of our daily lives -- like child custody
cases and business disputes -- and protect us from threats to our
The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive
just 1 percent of a state's entire budget; that's often less than a
state allocates for an executive branch agency. In Massachusetts,
the courts receive only 2 percent of the state budget.
Members of the legal community are beginning to understand this
situation, and we're taking steps to combat the crisis.
Courts -- including those in Massachusetts -- are doing their part
to demonstrate integrity, efficiency and innovation. The Boston Bar
Association credits the web-based MassCourts with increasing the
timely disposition of cases by more than 15 percent. The National
Center for State Courts recently recognized Massachusetts' new jury
automation system, which dramatically reduced the number of summons
issued and saved the trial courts more than a million dollars
The ABA continues the work of its Task Force on Preservation of
the Justice System, co-chaired by Theodore B. Olson and David
Boies, bringing those affected by this crisis together to discuss
strategies to help our judiciary. The task force has also created a
place to share court funding stories and creative ideas at http://bit.ly/mPjNoc.
But we need to go beyond our profession for solutions.
The ABA is working with state and local bar associations to
rethink how to sensibly spend taxpayer dollars to ensure public
safety. It costs $47,000 per year to hold an offender in custody,
according to the Corrections Master Plan commissioned by the
We need to decriminalize minor offenses, utilize pretrial release
and implement effective re-entry programs, among other reforms. I
am pleased to see that some of these reforms are under
consideration in Massachusetts.
We also must articulate what courts do and why they are important
to legislators and to the general public -- especially to young
people, because that civic knowledge will drive a renewed
dedication to the preservation of our justice system.
Even in times of extreme economic hardship, our courts need
adequate financial support and essential resources to fulfill their
constitutional responsibility. Let's join together to fight for
this access, otherwise … No courts. No justice. No freedom.
Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is member-in-charge of the
Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd LLC, a regional law
firm with offices in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and
Indiana. He currently serves as president of the American Bar
Association for a one-year term that began Aug. 8,