No courts, no justice, no freedom
by C.A. Woodall, III, 56th Judicial Circuit Judge
May 02, 2012 | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
William T. Robinson, III, the Northern Kentucky lawyer who is the current president of the American Bar Association has chosen this theme for Law Day, 2012: No Courts. No Justice. No Freedom.

The American Bar Association has identified a troubling trend in state courts resulting from increasing workloads and declining budgets to state judiciaries.

In a recent editorial in the Bench and Bar, Mr. Robinson states:

“The constitutional argument for sustainable funding for our courts is simple: The judiciary is a co-equal branch of government responsible for protecting our rights. The practical argument is equally compelling. The courts decide matters that go to the very core of our daily lives such as when a parent petitions for custody of a child or when a family fights foreclosure of their home.”

The financial argument is stunning. Judiciaries typically receive just 1 percent of a state’s entire budget—that’s often less than a state allocates for an executive branch agency. In Kentucky, the courts receive 3.5 percent of the budget pie to serve more than 4.3 million residents.

Our nation’s founders specifically separated our government into three co-equal branches in order to prevent the excessive accumulation of power by any one of the three. Our constitutional system of “checks and balances,” is one of the reasons that our constitutional democracy has continued to be the envy of the world.

In Kentucky, in a recent email to Court of Justice Employees, Chief Justice John D. Minton acknowledged that the Judicial Branch budget was cut by the general assembly for the 2012-2014 biennium by 8.4% (which is consistent with other state agencies). He also stated:

“Since 2008, we’ve cut positions and operating costs at all four levels of the court system to balance our budget in the face of repeated cuts. Those proactive measures allowed us to avoid furloughs and closing courthouse doors. With this new set of reductions, finding additional places to cut will be an even greater challenge.”

No, the sky is not falling on Kentucky’s Court of Justice. Belt-tightening in tough economic times is not pleasant, but is good for all of us. Individually, it helps us appreciate our blessings from better times. On a business and professional level, we become more efficient, more profitable (for businesses) and possibly more productive.

However, there are limits, particularly in the justice system. As pointed out by South Dakota’s Chief Justice in the 2011 State of the Judiciary message:

“We must be fiscal realists based on our current situation. But we also must go ahead and plan for a future which will carry with it a brighter day. Why? It is due to the fact that there is no moratorium on crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, or the need for access to justice. If anything, our current economic woes have increased these problems.”

Section 14 of the Kentucky Constitution provides:

“All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial, or delay.”

“Justice swift and sure” is an adage to which we all aspire within the court system. Unfortunately, we are often disappointed when we do not produce swift and sure justice and the failure to do so consistently is a constant frustration for all those involved in the justice system—court staff, clerks, prosecuting and defense attorneys, crime victims, and those accused of crimes. Particularly victims and those accused deserve speedy justice in order to get resolution and closure. Despite our best efforts, we seldom meet anyone’s definition of “swift.”

With a rising number of indictments in our circuit courts where felonies are heard and more criminal cases in district courts where misdemeanors are resolved and preliminary hearings in felony cases are held, it is easy to see that fewer people cannot do the same amount of work in the same time period.

Public defenders are chronically underfunded and their individual case numbers have risen beyond what any private attorney could expect to competently handle. Prosecutors are also understaffed and affected by other state government cutbacks such as those in reducing crime laboratory medical examiners.

Within the 56th Judicial Circuit, circuit and district clerks and their deputies work hard to earn their taxpayers salaries. Deputy clerks and support staffs in other areas, such as pretrial services, are not well paid and often work non-standard hours. Despite the professionalism and dedication of our local circuit and district clerks and their staff members, if new cutbacks require furloughs or court closing days, clearly we won’t be able to keep the courts open and “in business” every day at the current level of service.

One practical effect of the continuing necessity to cut back the delivery of justice is a lack of access to justice. It is already difficult for many people because of the difficult economic times to afford attorneys on the civil side of court affairs. Justice must be accessible to all in order to be fair and just to all.

Another practical effect is that something as simple as driver’s license renewals which take place in the circuit clerk’s office could be less accessible and routine probate hearings and the number of trials which can be held in the courts if furloughs or layoffs are necessitated will be restricted. Citizens end up paying the costs of these cutbacks.

So, this law day, despite the challenging times in which we all live, as we appreciate the many blessings that our constitutional democracy allows us to enjoy including remaining “One Nation Under God,” let’s also recall that our courts are established to render justice and if we cannot do so, our constitutionally protected freedoms as individuals diminish. No Courts. No Justice. No Freedom.

Thank you for the opportunity of serving you as Circuit Court Judge.
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