When talk turns to the state’s budget crisis, the discussion almost invariably focuses on the impact funding cuts will have on Arizona’s health and education systems. Among the general public, however, little to no thought is given to the effect budget cuts are having on the state’s judicial system.
“The state’s lack of resources promises to remain a challenge for several years,” says Timothy Berg, managing partner at Fennemore Craig. “However, it is important to remember that there are pronounced constitutional, social and economic dangers in rendering the Arizona court system ineffective by undue budget cuts.”
According the Arizona Judicial Branch, there were more than 2.6 million filings in Arizona courts in 2010.
“To make matters worse, the total number of persons working full-time in the Arizona judicial system decreased from 9,684 in 2009 to 9,379 in 2010 — a 3.1 percent decrease,” says David E. Funkhouser III, an associate at Quarles & Brady. “Thus, an already-strained judiciary is being forced to work more with less.”
As it is, the state’s judicial system receives just above 1 percent of the general budget, according to Don Bivens and Trish Refo, partners at Snell & Wilmer. Just a few years ago, Bivens says that allocation stood at 2.75 percent, a number still inadequate for the judicial branch’s needs.
“Funding state courts is a challenge all across America, as state courts face additional cuts to already inadequate budgets,” Refo adds. “Indeed, the situation is of such concern that American Bar Association President Steve Zack has formed a blue ribbon task force … to address the funding crisis in our state courts. State courts cannot fulfill their constitutional mandate to provide justice without adequate resources to do so.”
According to Snell & Wilmer, 80 percent of Arizona’s funding of the justice system goes to probation services. The remaining 20 percent is allocated across the supreme court, the appellate courts, and partial judicial salaries in local superior courts throughout the state. At least one county, Maricopa, is now shouldering the full burden for superior court salaries.
As Berg points out, cutting funding for the judicial branch will create an ineffective civil court system, which will have serious economic and social consequences on the state.
“Arizona’s judiciary is the arbiter of disputes involving government, corporations and individuals,” he says. “If businesses and entrepreneurs are unable to have their disputes resolved in a fair and timely manner, it is reasonable to expect that, over time, they will look to locate in other states.”
Thomas Irvine, a shareholder at Polsinelli Shughart, contends that the situation with civil cases will
likely become more dire as the court system continues to do more with less.
“Even with the 2012 opening of the new downtown criminal courthouse, we are out of courtrooms,” Irvine says. “Management miracles, as accomplished by the superior court in the last decade, cannot — without more — keep up with growth. There will be a need for more judges, staff and courthouses.”
In Maricopa County alone, Bivens of Snell & Wilmer says the clerk’s office has laid off 182 clerks. As a result, the court system is learning to work smarter.
“That loss of person power has accelerated the change over to electronic filing of court records, which, while causing commotion in the short term, will likely save millions in the future as the courts move from the laborious task of preserving mounds of paper for every court case, to filing and storing all court records digitally,” Bivens says.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that funds for the judicial system are growing more and more scarce. To make up for the loss in tax revenue, fees for court filings have increased 44 percent during the last two years, according to Snell & Wilmer. Irvine of Polsinelli Shughart emphasizes that the funding cuts and fee increases are not just a problem for the legal community.
“Arizona business must take the lead in supporting adequate budgets and resources for the courts,” he says. “Justice, victims, our community and the low priority of business cases demands that this effort be made. Slowing down the dance of justice is out of the question.”