When the state budget is debated in Olympia, it is seldom – if ever – that funding for Washington’s court system is a topic of public conversation. Higher visibility issues garner public attention and political debate.
Yet, clearly, maintaining a fair and open justice system is a critical value of our democratic society. “Equal Justice for All” is emblazoned above the front entrance of the United States Supreme Court for good reason.
Our justice system does not function unless it is available to everyone, regardless of status or ability to pay. And for our state justice system to be capable of functioning, it must be fairly funded by the Legislature.
Like hospitals, courts are not something you think about much until you need one, but then you want it to work well because whatever brought you there is likely very important to your life.
We expect our courts to impartially decide disputes among our citizenry. They are not political bodies and they do not engage in political debate. Therefore, it is not surprising that our courts often struggle for funding, while other issues are in the headlines.
This year is no exception. Just 0.4 percent of the state budget is allocated to the operation of the court system. As small as that may seem, it also means that cuts have dramatic effects.
Proposed Senate budget cuts this year appear extreme. As examples, senators propose cutting nearly $10 million from the general fund for the Administrative Office of the Courts. The AOC, a relatively small agency, is the primary support for our state courts. Much of AOC’s funding is dedicated for specific purposes. The proposed $10 million cut represents 23 percent from its present state general fund budget, which pays for critical things such as data and information systems used by the courts, testing of interpreters, coordination of drug courts, training of court staff, research, managing grants for domestic violence programs, for youth intervention, for language access, and for family court services.
About 75 percent of AOC’s general funding (excluding information technology and judges’ salaries) goes directly to courts to provide justice services.
When added to cuts since 2009, this year’s $10 million cut amounts to a 45 percent overall reduction of the agency’s budget. Compared with other states, Washington is last in the percentage of support for its courts. On a percentage basis, and compared with other cuts in this year’s Senate budget, no other part of the state government is being cut as deeply.
As an already underfunded system, access to justice is being jeopardized. The justice system doesn’t work if you can’t access it because you live in a rural area and the court satellite office has closed and online services are barely functioning.
The courts don’t work if you are hearing-impaired or not fluent in English and a qualified interpreter can’t be located, or afforded.
They don’t work if you need information but doors are closed certain hours (as many courts now are), websites are rarely maintained and phone lines cannot be staffed.
Our justice system doesn’t work if a child must go to court during a custody (dependency) hearing and stand alone between two disputing parents.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) numbers would be cut, at least as is now proposed.
Our justice system doesn’t work if court users cannot afford attorneys and don’t understand court processes. There are few, if any, staff or publications to help self-represented persons. At the same time, “pro se,” or self-represented individuals, occupy more and more court hours, resulting in fewer cases heard because pro se cases take longer and consume more court resources.
The system can’t work if information is not available because the IT systems are more than 37 years old. Imagine the impact of a judge issuing an order in our county and not being aware of a no-contact order filed in a nearby county because the systems can’t speak to one another.
Lawmakers must balance the budget and provide for many, many services to Washingtonians. As part of that balance, a fair and functioning judicial system is not a luxury. It is a basic tenet of American governance, a right of the people. It protects us from the abuses of all kinds of power and helps the rest of government and society to function.
Continuing to cut court budgets in this manner harms everyone.
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