Protect Our Freedom:
By Lorraine Boyd, Editor
A Call to Action
The Daily Record
The American Bar Association chose their 2012 Law Day theme wisely.
“No Courts • No Justice • No Freedom” reflects the urgent state of the judicial system in these economically challenging times.
Around the country, counties and municipalities are closing some courts; cutting back hours; delaying hiring of courtroom personnel, instead resorting to some judges sharing court reporters; delaying purchase of vital state-of-the-art equipment for their courtrooms; postponing construction of more prison and jail cells, resulting in early release of prisoners – in short, cutting wherever they can to stay within their shrinking budgets. Appointments of judges are stalled, not only because of political gridlock, but also because of finances.
All this adds up to the possibility of denial of justice as we have come to know it in America. The right to a speedy trial, the public’s right of protection from criminals, the right to redress wrongs, to have your day in court: this is what is at stake today.
Add to that a changing demographic that demands more and more language skills of its justice system and an economy that necessitates the use of more and more pro bono legal services, a need that is often going unmet.
The Douglas County Courthouse in downtown Omaha, while a handsome structure, is celebrating its centennial this year, so it stands to reason that some renovations might be in order. Space is very tight and some areas are in dire need of renewal. The budget is not there to do much, so those working there make do, perhaps at the price of delayed justice. Lest we point out only the downside, let us remember the efforts of the many arms of the court to bring paper work tasks into the 21st Century, with a huge shift toward doing things electronically – which saves time and space and, yes, money.
In this edition, those in the justice system have weighed in eloquently on those challenges and more, emphasizing the need for the public and Congress to understand how vitally important it is to adequately fund the courts.
Furthermore, our feature writers have explored the problems and proposed solutions to a number of these issues, talking to many of Nebraska’s legal experts.
While Nebraska has fared better than many other states, due to a much lower unemployment rate – 4.0 percent – than the national rate of 8.2 percent, the state is not without financial concerns. Our state Constitution requires a balanced budget, which has been difficult to attain in recent years.
“Even if the economy continues to improve, it’s incredibly unlikely that it would expand enough to cover the … shortfall Nebraska is facing next year,” said Renee Fry, executive director the OpenSky Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, as quoted on www.statebudgetsolutions.org.
“Next January … you are going to be begging and pleading and scratching and clawing for every dime,” Omaha Sen. Burke Harr warned his colleagues during floor debate on Gov. Heineman’s tax plan. “We don’t have the money.”
“States are trimming court budgets,” the website reported. “In New York, that means courts closing half an hour earlier to avoid overtime costs for court personnel. In addition, experts believe that the corrections system offers many options for savings in most state budgets. Corrections is second only to Medicaid, as the fastest growing category in state budgets. Because staffing accounts for 75 to 80 percent of corrections costs, reducing the prison population and closing facilities can yield substantial returns.”
Headlines in April reflected the dilemma:
“Legislative budget impasse will cause court closings, furloughs, Chief Justice Nuss says” – The Lawrence [Kansas] Journal World
The story noted: Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss on Wednesday said he would order Kansas courts shut down [for five days] and 1,500 employees furloughed without pay. The action is necessary, Nuss said, because the Legislature adjourned last week for its annual break without approving a $1.4 million supplemental appropriation for the judicial branch. Because of a drop-off in case filing fees, the judiciary doesn’t have enough money to meet payroll through the fiscal year, which ends June 30, he said. The furloughed workers will essentially be taking a 10 percent pay cut for five pay periods.
The situation is only slightly better in Iowa. In The Des Moines Register, an April headline read: “Legislators Far Apart on Budget.” The story reported, “In the budget funding state courts, the House proposes spending $156.4 million, the same as the current year. But the Senate calls for a $6.5 million increase, to $162.9 million, including $5.7 million more for court operations.”
In Alabama, the press stated, “Senate OKs Prison Money to Avoid Mass Release.”
And in Louisiana, a headline says it all: “Louisiana Looks to Sell Prison for Budget Savings.”
See a pattern here?
Now would be a good time for American voters to express their concerns and conviction that funding for the courts should not flag. Nebraska State Bar President Warren Whitted wrote in the March/April edition of Nebraska Lawyer Magazine that an important role of the association “is to improve the administration of justice. It is to assure that our system functions more effectively, our judges are fairly compensated, our courts are adequately funded, that we have enough judges, that our citizens are well represented, our state laws are current and address the legal needs of our citizens and that the interests of our members are properly served.”
To that end the NSBA’s Legislative Committee reviews and recommends bills on which the NSBA might take a stand. The Executive Council reviews those recommendations and the House of Delegates then acts on the recommendations, establishing the year’s Legislative Program.
“Participation in the process to protect our institutions is an essential function of the NSBA and we take that obligation very seriously. … Our Legislative Program gives us a seat at the table,” Whitted wrote.
One way we might participate in assuring that justice is served through adequate support by our government would be to talk with our local and state bar representatives, urging them to take action where necessary. We hope that the viewpoints in this edition help to clarify the issues.
Unless we take some action, we run the risk of “No courts, no justice, no freedom.”