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Bar associations and the lawyers they serve must play an active role in promoting adequate funding of our justice system.
Inadequate funding is a significant threat to fair and impartial courts. And when our courts fail, we lose a critical component of a free society. As stated by Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Thomas L. Kilbride, "the courts are not an agency or department providing a governmental service, but an equal, constitutional branch conducting a vital function of our government."
I want to thank the Chief Justice for contributing the lead article for this month's Illinois Bar Journal (page 587 ff). His leadership in raising public and legislative awareness of the evils of poor court funding has been crucial. It has also energized the rest of us in the legal community on this important issue.
Our courts must be fair and impartial, accessible, well run, and unencumbered by politics. In short, they must inspire confidence and operate at full capacity. But this will not happen unless those of us who have the best understanding of our court system - lawyers and judges - participate in the public discourse, communicating the critical need for adequate funding. A lack of vigilance on our part will be at our peril, not to mention at the peril of the robust democracy that follows from divided government.
Citizens across a wide spectrum have a stake in fair and impartial courts. They include the many in urgent need of court assistance - victims of domestic violence, parents and children waiting on processing of child support checks, and people waiting for court action on liens, garnishments, warrants, abuse and neglect, and other important matters.
The business community is certainly a huge stakeholder. Having strong courts is crucial to the economic stability we all desire for Illinois. According to the World Bank - and not surprisingly - an economy with an efficient judicial system, clear property rights, and an effective government will produce higher total wealth.
Court funding in Illinois
Illinois state courts were "unified" pursuant to Article VI, the Judicial Article of the Illinois Constitution of 1970. However, as most of you know, this does not mean that all court funding comes from the same source. The state funds judicial salaries, supreme and appellate court staff and operations, a portion of trial court administration, mandatory arbitration programs, and a portion of probation and detention salaries. The counties fund all other areas of trial court operations, including county-paid court personnel, technology, contracts, capital expenditures, youth detention centers (where applicable), and utilities.
The 102 counties in our state vary greatly in the court funding they provide. For example, in 2011 the per capita spending by county simply to fund the circuit court clerk's office had over a 100 percent range differential from lowest to highest. This disparity is striking.
The "state" portion of court funding in Illinois represents .6 percent of the state budget, which for the budget year 2013 amounted to a line item of $281,087,100. At the same time - and as a point of reference - the court system generates more than $200 million each year through filing fees, costs, and fines to finance a range of trial court functions, as well as statewide initiatives and programs.
Is the current level of state funding sufficient to meet the needs of this co-equal branch of government? Clearly not. For the past several years, the judicial branch has seen a steady decline in state funding. Most negatively affected have been probation salary reimbursements to the counties. County governments have been forced to bear the brunt of these funding shortfalls, and in some instances have reduced their work forces in response.
The trends have not been all bad. In recent years, our courts have demonstrated greater efficiencies, for example in technology. Since 2002, the court has permitted the establishment of electronic filing pilot programs in civil cases. It also has allowed drivers to enter electronic pleas of guilt in minor traffic violations, a convenience for both the traffic offender and the justice system. Economies and efficiencies have been achieved in other areas of court operations, ranging from using technology to conduct committee meetings to distance learning initiatives. In short, the funding pressures have necessitated that our courts do more with less - but this can only go so far.
War stories from other states
The national trend in court funding is not good. According to American Bar Association immediate past President William T. Robinson III, 42 states cut funding for their courts last year.
The consequences of these cuts are detailed in Chief Justice Kilbride's article, including, e.g., counties no longer accepting case filings due to lack of paper, mass layoffs, closed courtrooms, reduction in courthouse hours, court furlough days, hiring freezes, and reduced number of jurors called for duty.
The role of bar associations and what the ISBA is doing
The bar associations in this state have an important role in the fight for adequate court funding. To begin with, we need to maintain an open dialogue with the judiciary and our state legislature - and with our respective county boards. We should also keep the public informed through YouTube videos, public service announcements, and media and Law Day events. We should work cooperatively with other interested groups, including law schools, the American Bar Association, circuit clerks, the National Center for State Courts, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, community organizations, law enforcement groups, social service advocates, and courts themselves. To reverse the negative trends, we must generate public awareness and lay the groundwork for meaningful funding increases.
At the Illinois State Bar Association, we are paying especially close attention to this issue during my year as president. This includes the activities of our Special Committee on Fair and Impartial Courts (chaired by Judge Patricia P. Golden and Justice James M. Wexstten), which I have tasked with coordinating ISBA efforts to identify and publicize threats to fair and impartial courts from lack of funding and to consider measures to address this problem.
This committee's activities so far have included surveying chief judges around the state, enhancing the lines of communication between ISBA and lawyer-legislators (to lay a foundation for an appropriate legislative response), and disseminating the information it collects (and the committee's findings and recommendations).
We have also been working closely with the Illinois Judges Association and its current President Rita M. Novak (who also serves on our special committee). The ISBA/IJA cooperative efforts will include a joint program on this subject at our midyear meeting in December, drawing on resources from the American Bar Association's Task Force on Preservation of the Courts System and the National Center for State Courts.
The ISBA is also concerned about the impact of lack of funding at the federal level. As of this writing, federal courts are under the immediate threat of "sequestration," which would certainly affect court schedules and services. By way of example, options in the northern district currently under consideration include closing Chicago and Rockford federal courts one day a week for nine months of next year, or for the entire month of February.
This sort of reduction in court services would be disastrous for many of our members and the clients they serve. As such, I have spoken publicly to advance what must be a universal plea that the federal government take all necessary action to avoid such extreme measures.
A well-informed public and engaged public sector are key to maintaining fair and impartial courts. As evidenced by our activities this year, the ISBA is continuing to do its part to see that we have both.
Thanks to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and its director, Michael J. Tardy, for helpful background information.