Access to Justice: Iowa Style

Below are excerpts from IOWA State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice Mark S. Cady on January 12, 2011. Unfortunately some of these access to justice issues noted by Chief Justice Cady resound here in South Carolina. For the entire text, click here.

Iowans cannot have the hope of justice without having access to justice. The grim reality is that more and more Iowans with legal problems are forced to wait too long for their day in court. These problems are troublesome to litigants and shake people’s confidence in our government. These problems result from a decade of fiscal austerity coupled with Iowans’ growing demands for court services.

This situation is not new. It has been raised in the past. Thankfully, you and the governor responded to our concerns last year and provided sufficient funds to prevent further cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. For this action, we are grateful. Like a thumb in the dike, however, this action was merely a temporary fix. It did not halt the continued erosion of court services. The situation grows worse day-by-day.

For example, in the past year, the number of clerk of court offices forced to operate on a part-time basis increased from 26 to 30. Staff reductions are so severe that at times some of these offices must close for business without notice due to unanticipated employee absence. The remaining clerk of court offices operate a full day, but are closed to the public for four hours a week to give employees periods of uninterrupted time to pare down the backlog of work. In addition, it has become increasingly difficult for our juvenile court officers to give troubled children the close, personal attention they need. Also, judicial rulings are delayed because of a lack of clerical support and court reporters.

I will briefly review how we arrived at this critical juncture.

From 2001 through 2009, in response to the state’s fiscal problems, the judicial branch like most components of state government had to cut its budget. During those years, the judicial branch cut its budget five times―and each time the cuts were deep. Unlike many state agencies, nearly all of our operating costs are for people―employees and judges. This means that budget cuts almost always require further reductions in our workforce. The end result: our staffing levels have dropped a staggering 17% in the last decade.

Today, Iowa’s court system operates with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987. In contrast, over the same period, the total number of legal actions brought by Iowans and Iowa businesses has nearly doubled. In short, Iowa’s courts are overrun with work, and Iowans are paying the price with reduced access to justice.

Our ability to deliver court services and resolve litigation to the extent that we do is a tribute to the strong work ethic and indomitable spirit of our judges, magistrates, and court staff. Unfortunately, the admirable efforts of our judges and employees cannot totally shield Iowans from the effects of the past decade of budget cuts.

-RFW

Budget Cuts: Georgia & South Carolina

A State Budget Crisis is continuing to stretch an already thinly stretched court system. South Carolina has been humming this tune for a while now. Sounds familiar, right?

South Carolina has fewer judges with a heavier caseload than any other court system in the nation

SC has the highest number of general jurisdiction non-traffic case filings per judge (4,180) in the country.  The next highest is 3,147 in North Carolina

SC has the fewest number of general jurisdiction judges per capita in the country at 1.1 per 100,000 population

SC’s general jurisdiction civil caseload increased 68% in the 10 years from 1996 to 2006[1]

FY[2]          APPROPRIATIONS                 FINES & FEES         FED’L FUNDS       TTL SPENT        

99-00       $41,065,091                         $54,781                   $0                            $41,119,872

00-01       $46,486,500                            $66,575                 $0                            $46,553,075

01-02       $39,014,860                         $2,849,873           $928,311               $42,793,044

02-03       $35,685,629                         $6,683,806           $2,897,322           $45,266,757

03-04       $31,849,253                            $10,105,241         $5,831,459              $47,785,953

04-05       $32,650,207                         $12,207,897         $4,664,535           $49,522,639

05-06       $33,958,408                         $14,390,096         $5,755,279           $54,103,783

06-07       $36,631,439                         $15,065,443         $5,053,703           $56,750,585

07-08       $38,101,765                         $15,323,985            $5,000,000           $58,425,750[3]

Now it’s happening in Georgia according to an article by Protecting Civil Justice, a blog by the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

While criminal litigants can often take advantage of speedy trial demands to move their cases through the court system, civil litigants have no such rights and cases can drag on for years before reaching trial. At least one judicial district has temporarily suspended all civil trials because of crowded dockets.

You may be asking whether the number of judges has an affect access to justice. Yes, it does. It has a LOT to do with access to justice.

While it’s true that many cases settle before going to trial, many an attorney has realized that the possibility of a trial, especially a public trial involving an egregious civil rights’ action, can often bring about the same or sometimes better result as actually going to trial. BUT sometimes a person just wants their day in court. And the facts of the action are such that it’s appropriate to continue to the court and let either the judge or the jury decide the remedy.

THIS is when access to justice is affected by budget cuts in the judiciary.

For example, a female victim of domestic abuse has finally left her abusive spouse. Although she has been able to shield her children and herself from continued assault, she has no money for daily living expenses and really cannot continue to feed and clothe her children. She needs to go in front of the judge to petition for child support. Let’s even concede that she has no trouble finding an attorney to assist.

Ok, her attorney files the petition. Her case is assigned a date on the court calendar. Hurray, right?

Not so fast. The court date is four months away due to budget shortfalls and lack of judges.

She has to decide – go back to the abuse or stay away. If she goes back she may die. If she goes back, her children may be harmed. If she goes back, the cycle continues. BUT the children will have food and clothing. And so will she.

But if she stays away, she may become homeless. And maybe he’ll call DSS to have her children taken away.

True, this is one example. One egregious example that is also a very real possibility.  

Please consider access to justice when you think about budget cuts in the judiciary. It affects a lot more than it appears.

 -RFW

[1] Slide 11 of 28 from the 2008 State of the Judiciary found online at http://www.sccourts.org/whatsnew/SOJ2008/StateOfJudiciary2008_files/frame.htm

[2] [2] Information based on Slide 9 of 28 from the 2008 State of the Judiciary, http://www.sccourts.org/whatsnew/SOJ2008/StateOfJudiciary2008_files/frame.htm

[3] Projected