For many Louisianans, the judiciary is most visible to them during election season when campaign signs appear in every neighborhood and on virtually every street corner. Judges or aspiring judges seek from voters the privilege of wearing the robe, serving the people and upholding the Constitution.
Other than this high-visibility moment, most of our citizens pay little attention to the courts ... until they need them. That is why it’s quite shocking for most to learn how limited are the resources allocated to the courts, a third co-equal branch of government, to carry out their constitutionally mandated duties. The judicial branch accounts for only 0.5 percent of the state budget in Louisiana. To place this serious lack of funding in perspective, consider that the judicial budget is $168 million out of an overall state budget of $28 billion for 2013-14.
For comparison, the executive department received 12.22 percent, over 24 times greater than the judicial funding in 2013.
Nationally, the situation is much the same in the state courts. The underfunded third branch has had to compensate for their meager budget. According to the National Center for State Courts, some states have had to go to the extreme of closing some courts and reducing the operating hours of others, laying off or furloughing employees, cutting security and deferring needed maintenance on its buildings. In Louisiana, among other states, there have been hiring freezes for court personnel, limited access to court resources and restrictions on employee travel.
The Economics of Justice, a publication released in July by DRI — The Voice of the Defense Bar (a professional association of 22,000 defense attorneys), is intended to raise public awareness of underfunded courts across the country.
It maintains that implementing hiring freezes, as well as other ill-advised measures, to face budget shortfalls not only reduces the efficiency of our court systems but also unnecessarily increases time to resolve disputes. And there are a lot of disputes.
In 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court reported increased filings to the highest court, along with increased writs and appeals filed with the appellate court. There were over 733,800 filings in the district courts and over 838,900 filings in the city and parish courts.
The adage “justice delayed is justice denied” is truest when the courts cannot mete out timely justice. Businesses can be forced into bankruptcy for lack of resolution of a commercial dispute. Women can be endangered in not being able to secure a protective order against abusive partners; criminals can be returned to the street if deprived of a constitutionally mandated “speedy trial.” At one point, one-third of public defenders in New Orleans were laid off, which raises concerns about the ineffective assistance of counsel.
Failure to remedy these problems not only denies people access to the courts and justice but will also continue to come at tremendous economic and social cost to our community and to our citizens. Underfunding the courts does not merely affect those inside the courthouses across the state. It affects everyone.
This is the main point of The Economics of Justice: Underfunding the judiciary has serious and adverse impacts on the local economy. DRI cites one study in Florida by the Washington Economics Group that found that the backlog of real property/mortgage foreclosure cases caused by underfunded courts resulted in a total of more than $17 billion direct and indirect costs to the state’s economy.
The irony is that because the courts’ budget is so small, the cuts have a major impact on the courts while having little to no effect in improving the state’s overall budget.
The citizens of Louisiana do not want criminals thrown back out onto the streets for lack of a speedy trial because the government does not have a staffed courthouse to try them in. They do not want the economy stunted because businesses are held back by unresolved litigation.
The DRI study concluded, “The Judicial branch has a massive impact on the success of government, social cohesion, and economic stability.” Adequate funding of the judiciary is a good investment. It only makes sense to fund the judiciary because funding benefits us all.
The benefits reaped greatly exceed the cost. As Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson stated in her State of the Judiciary Address to the Joint Session of the Legislature, “adequate funding of our branch of government guarantees an independent judiciary.” What she refers to is that adequate funding frees our courts from inappropriate political influence.
As The Economics of Justice states, “It is not an understatement to say that American democracy is built on our court systems. To protect our democracy and contribute to the well-being of local economies, it is critical that our courts remain independent and adequately funded.”
Mark J. Neal is owner of Neal Law Firm in Monroe. He is a member of the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel and serves on the Board of Directors of DRI as the southwest region director.