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F. James Robinson Jr.: Budget cuts placing courts at a tipping point

  • Published Friday, March 7, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Our founders fashioned three separate branches of government to ensure that democracy, liberty and the rule of law were not hollow promises. James Madison, when introducing in Congress the Bill of Rights, eloquently said that courts are the “guardians” of individual rights and “an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.”

Our democracy depends on courts not under the thumb of other branches of government, to administer the law justly.

But the Legislature’s control over the judiciary’s budget – especially when the two branches clash over judicial review of legislation – is a powerful political tool that can threaten fair and impartial courts.

In these economic times no one would suggest that Kansas courts be spared the pain of fiscal prudence. But the cuts made over the past few years have harmed core court functions. Former federal court Judge Learned Hand once said, “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” However, in Kansas rationing justice has already occurred because of budget constraints and cost-cutting measures, including hiring and pay freezes, reducing court hours, delaying needed technology upgrades that will make courts more efficient, and court closures.

When courts are able to promptly process cases, families and children whose lives are in turmoil can turn to courts for the quick answers they need. A vibrant business climate that can create jobs depends upon prompt resolution of business disputes to bring stability and certainty to economic decision-making. Processing criminal cases speedily saves taxpayers money by reducing the time that defendants spend in jail awaiting trial.

Kansas courts are at a tipping point. Funding issues will plague courts in fiscal year 2014. Because of compulsory payroll increases for longevity and retirement funds, budget shortfalls are likely. Added stress will come from docket fees and surcharges, which have proved to be unreliable funding sources as court filings continue to decrease.

The budget approved for fiscal year 2015 is much worse. According to Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, the judiciary will be short $8.25 million. Since 96 percent of its budget goes to salaries, Nuss has warned that courts could close for seven weeks.

Forcing court closures or shortened court hours risks the ideals we hold dear – accessible courts, the rule of law, public safety and fundamental fairness – and so tears at the fabric of our democracy.

Any savings from budget cuts likely will be more than offset by resulting economic losses. A 2009 study of planned 2009-13 budget cuts for Los Angeles’ courts of between $79 million and $140 million found that the cuts would produce declines of $13 billion in business activity, $15 billion in economic losses for litigants, 150,000 lost jobs and $1.6 billion in lost local and state taxes.

A 2009 study in Florida concluded that a backlog of mortgage-foreclosure cases alone cost $9.9 billion in additional legal fees, interest lost by financial institutions, and reductions in property values. Further, the study found the aggregate of all costs from court delays approached $10.1 billion annually.

Rationing justice and closing courts for political or budget reasons is simply unacceptable. If we do not act now to fully fund our courts, it will cost taxpayers and businesses millions of dollars and put basic individual rights at risk.

F. James Robinson Jr. is a Wichita attorney.

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