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The cost of a functioning justice system

By Ronald M. George
Chief Justice, California Supreme Court

Chief Justice Ronald M. George

A strong and independent judicial system is not just another government program, nor is it a luxury to be afforded in good economic times and neglected when the state’s revenues are down. Drastic reductions in resources require courts to ration their services among those who need them. Some who look to the court system in order to vindicate their rights simply will have to look elsewhere — but for most there will be nowhere else to go. Government without a functioning judicial system is not government as we know it, nor is it the type of government that the public expects and deserves.

California’s court system — the largest in the nation, with more than 1,600 judges, several hundred subordinate judicial officers, and about 19,000 court employees — has been working hard to meet its basic obligations to the public and to our sister branches of government. We are continuing to do our part in reducing expenditures wherever possible. Already, however, reductions in court budgets have adversely affected the lives of many Californians and threaten to render the administration of justice uneven and inadequate across our state.

Additional reductions and continued uncertainty about the long-term financial stability of our judicial system will negatively affect public safety. Other consequences will fall with particular weight on many of the most vulnerable members of society. Curtailing the services provided by the courts may be reflected as savings on an account ledger. But such savings will be illusory, because if court services shrink, the financial demands placed on the legislature and the executive branch will expand for funding prisons, health and social services, and business development. In short, cutting the courts now will result in greater costs to government later.

An underfunded judicial system also will impede our state’s economic recovery. If civil cases cannot be resolved in a reasonable time, or if court services decline so that public safety and security suffer, business establishments and individuals simply will go elsewhere.

Although the judicial system persists in efforts to provide meaningful access to the courts, we are finding that many useful programs are being curtailed and are in immediate jeopardy of being eliminated entirely, because of cuts already imposed or reductions proposed for the coming fiscal year.

The consequences of such underfunding also extend to core court functions that directly affect public safety. For example, the Vallejo and Fairfield branches of the Solano Superior Court have a backlog of some 7,600 felony and misdemeanor cases that need to be updated in the case management system and reported to the California Department of Justice and the Department of Motor Vehicles. These backlogged cases date back to the first half of 2003. In Monterey County, it is not uncommon to have delays of four to six months in processing requests by the district attorney’s office for copies of prior-conviction records needed for making charging decisions under the three-strikes law and driving-while-under-the-influence laws.

In fact, courts in every part of the state report delays in processing criminal conviction information and in transmitting reports on convictions, warrants and warrant clearances to the Department of Justice and DMV. Incorrect or incomplete information increases the danger to the public. And individuals who have cleared outstanding warrants risk being stopped, arrested and having their vehicles impounded because of stale information.

The basic ability of courts to remain open for the people’s business is being weakened by chronic underfunding. To provide some context for the crucial role played by the courts in the lives of the public, I note that, according to Presiding Judge Robert Dukes of the Los Angeles Superior Court, of the 12 million residents of Los Angeles County, one out of every two comes through the doors of at least one of the dozens of courthouses of the Los Angeles County Superior Court every year as a litigant, a lawyer, a witness, a juror, a member of the public seeking information, or an employee. What other public service or facility is used to such an extraordinary degree?

Some courts have shortened the public hours of clerks’ offices, making it harder for individuals to file documents or obtain information. Some pressing matters are delayed — including potential life-saving measures such as obtaining a domestic violence or other restraining order — because long waits for service by court users, at times extending for days, have become common. Layoffs and staff furloughs mean fewer people available to respond to inquiries at the desk or by telephone. In some court locations, it has become almost impossible to get through by telephone.

Cutbacks in programs designed to assist self-represented litigants may help courts absorb funding cuts in the short term, but these reductions result in greater demands on staff and judicial time, because documents are not filled out correctly and litigants do not understand their rights and cannot locate the basic information needed to expeditiously file and process their cases.

The consequences of inadequate funding are there for all to see in many courthouses across the state. Additional cuts will strike at the heart of an effective justice system — not to mention the burden on court operations from increases in costs over which the courts have little or no control, such as courthouse security and employee salaries.

Further slowdowns in processing criminal judgments and warrants create not only confusion — they increase the danger faced by the public. Inadequate funding for drug courts and treatment services will shift costs to the prison and social services systems as individuals fail to obtain the help they need. Civil litigants — including firms doing business in California — will be confronted with increasingly scarce court services, complicating and delaying the resolution of their disputes.

Courts facing current financial difficulties are contemplating shutting down civil courtrooms for part of each week — if not for part of the year. Some courts already have shortened the end of the court day from 5 p.m. to 4 p.m., or are shutting down entirely for a half day or whole day each week. There will be further delays in the courts as unrepresented litigants struggle to master the legal process without the special programs designed to assist them in vindicating their rights. Already, because of shorter and skipped court days, trials are interrupted and spread over more days and weeks, causing greater inconvenience and cost to jurors, witnesses, lawyers and litigants in addition to diminishing the quality of the justice that is rendered.

Courts cannot control the number of cases filed. They cannot reach out to the public at large to collect fees to support their operations. Collecting fees, fines and penalties cannot be the only answer or even the primary answer. Courts cannot and should not be expected to be financially self-sufficient. Funding contingent upon the imposition and collection of fees, fines and penalties would place courts in an untenable position: their existence would become dependent upon their willingness to impose and collect financial penalties. The cost of a functioning justice system should be paid by everyone, not simply by direct users; all of us benefit from the fair, accessible and efficient administration of justice.

One measure of a society is its ability to ensure public order and security while protecting the rights of the individual, no matter how weak or powerful. Courts stand at the forefront of this endeavor. If we abandon the goal of accessible justice for all, we surrender not only our court system but one of the most fundamental compacts of our democratic system of government.

This column is excerpted from the Chief Justice’s State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the legislature.

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