Guest opinion: Justice worth the cost
Cuts to legal aid for poor would also hurt their neighbors, judicial system
What is the price of justice?
In 2005, the price of justice in the state of Washington was three-tenths of 1 percent. That was the amount that the state spent on the judiciary and on judicial programs – for example, civil legal aid, indigent criminal representation and interpreters. In 2009, after many judges and state court officials lobbied for years for increases through the Justice in Jeopardy Initiative, the price of justice in the state of Washington crept up to seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state budget.
In 2005, the state ranked 50th in the nation for the amount spent by the state on support for trial-court-related operations. In 2009, Washington still comes in last.
What exactly do these numbers mean, especially now as the Legislature contemplates further cuts funding for judicial programs, such as civil legal aid to the poor?
They mean that families will be hurt the most. Those who are in danger of having their homes foreclosed or being evicted from their rental housing will no longer have meaningful access to the judicial system for relief. Those who have lost or are losing their jobs will have an even harder time getting unemployment and heath benefits without help from civil legal-aid programs.
A large portion of support for Washington’s civil legal aid for the poor comes from the Legal Foundation of Washington, which was established by the Supreme Court to administer the state’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program. Because of precipitous drops in interest rates and the general recession, annual IOLTA revenues have dropped by $7 million from 2007 levels, causing deep cuts in legal-aid programs across the state.
Another source of funding for civil legal aid comes from the state and is administered by the Office of Civil Legal Aid. As the Legislature struggles to balance a $9 billion shortfall, the Senate budget projects 20 percent cuts in legal aid funding. Such cuts are likely to devastate the civil legal-aid programs that the judicial branch has lobbied so hard to maintain.
Who will be hurt? Not just the poor among us, but the newly poor who never believed they would be unemployed or lose their housing or have trouble putting food on the table. These are our neighbors, family members and friends. When homes are foreclosed, nearby homeowners suffer as well with sinking property values. When the unemployed poor lose their health insurance, they are forced to use the emergency rooms at hospitals, putting even more stress on our health system. In stressful times, domestic violence increases, putting more burdens on the judicial system and the foster-care system when children are involved, as they usually are.
Washington cannot afford this. Legislators must look at the consequences – financial and human – to cutting legal aid. Tell your legislators to fund these programs. It’s cheaper in the long run.
Island County, Wash., Superior Court Judge Vickie I. Churchill is immediate past president of the Washington state Superior Court Judges Association. She wrote this commentary in consultation with other members of the association, including Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari S. Eitzen, who will assume the presidency this month.