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Funding cuts to courts endanger freedom, ABA President says

Published March 15, 2012 11:54 pm

Attorneys' convention • Understanding gap is widespread about role of courts, he says.
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Cuts in judiciary funding in New York have meant courts close at 4:30 p.m.

If a jury is just about to complete a verdict, but it's not ready by closing time, they'll have to return the next day. In the San Francisco area, 29 of 63 courts were closed in the fall and 40 percent of the staff were laid off.

"It's axiomatic but true that 'justice delayed, is justice denied,' " said Bill Robinson, American Bar Association president and keynote speaker for Utah State Bar's 2012 Spring Convention, which convenes Saturday in St. George.

Robinson said his upcoming speech to local attorneys attending the conference, "No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom," is a theme the ABA is focusing on throughout the year because of the funding cuts state courts are facing across the country.

Utah courts have not gone untouched. Rod Snow, Utah State's Bar president, said courts are 20 percent down from staffing levels a decade ago. On the upside, no courts have been closed and they remain open for regular hours.

To address funding locally, members of Utah Bar Association meet annually with the governor and emphasize the business-friendly orientation the state enjoys.

"If you slow down the courts down, you slow business down," said Snow. "If businesses cannot resolve their disputes or it takes longer because of lack of funding, you have millions maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in court."

That money belongs on somebody's financial statement, so it can be used to hire employees or make capital investments, Snow added.

In contrast to Utah's situation, Robinson said, last year 42 of the 50 states cut court funding. He said there is no state in the country that funds its judiciary branch on an annual basis with more than 4 percent of its operating budget.

"An independent judiciary is required for a constitutional democracy, which is the key to freedom," Robinson said. "This is our time, our responsibility, and our privilege to stand up and speak out for the courts so we can assure adequate funding and continued access to the court for the citizenry."

The economic downturn has been a factor in the funding crisis to courts. But there is also a lack of civic education in most parts of the country, Robinson said, that leads to a widespread lack of understanding about the role of the courts.

Robinson pointed to a poll in which a large percentage of the population could name each of the judges on "American Idol" but none of those on the U. S. Supreme Court.

Another high percentage of the population, when asked to name the three branches of government, responded with Democrat, Republican and Independent.

"It explains, in part, why the vital role played by the courts, provided by our judges in administering justice, is simply not understood or misunderstood. Therefore, the citizenry doesn't put as high a value on what the courts provide to our constitutional democracy," he said.

Unlike many other states, civics is taught in Utah high schools. The Utah State Bar is also in the process of rolling out a new civics education program in which an attorney would go to high school and teach a course, stressing the importance of the constitutional form of government, checks and balances, and having an independent judiciary system. The group hopes to get into every high school in the state.

"We have to reawaken the respect and appreciation of the public at large for their courts, their need for justice," Robinson said. "This is in large part an educational challenge for us."







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