Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Court budget cuts slow justice, reduce security

We rarely get a story idea from an editorial, but one in today's New York Times told us something we didn't know: In many states, justice is being delayed because of budget cuts in state court systems. In most states, state courts are also local courts, so there may be a story in what's going on in yours. Margaret Marshall, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, told the New York City Bar Association last month that state courts across the country stand at “the tipping point of dysfunction,” the Times reports. It adds some examples:

"New Hampshire ... suspended civil and criminal jury trials in 8 of 10 county courts for one month each between last December and June. In California, state courthouses are closed for business on the third Wednesday of every month. Iowa is planning to close all state courts for several days before the state’s fiscal year ends on June 30. ... In Georgia, it can take 60 days to hold a hearing in a temporary custody case that used to take just a few weeks. In other states as well, spending cuts have led to fewer court dates available for hearing and trials, creating a growing backlog of cases. With priority given to serious criminal matters, there is a looming threat to the civil justice system, and its ability to vindicate people’s rights, and to foster economic growth and stability by enforcing business contracts in a timely manner."

The problems go beyond judicial process to security. Citing the National Center for State Courts, the editorial says many court security personnel have lost their jobs. "In Maine, for instance, magnetic security machines at local courthouses are no longer regularly manned. In Alabama, says the immediate past president of the Alabama Bar Association, Mark White, fiscally driven “compromises in service and security are creating a situation ripe for disaster.” Better check to see what's happening at your courthouse(s).

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