Three Top Judges Say Courts on ‘life Support’

An American bar Association panel that included the three top judges in the nation’s three largest states bemoaned budget cutbacks while also pointing to the need for civil lawyers for the indigent.

“Representation of the poor and the middle class is the most significant problem of the judiciary,” warned Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of New York state.  His comments came Thursday as part of a six-member panel of state and federal judges at the ABA’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainright, giving indigent defendants the right to criminal defense lawyers.  Courts have not extended any similar right in civil court for people facing eviction, domestic violence, elder abuse or mortgage foreclosure.

But a civil version of Gideon is very much in play, Lippman said.

He pointed out New York has put $55 million in the judiciary budget to provide for people who don’t have the necessities of life; a roof over their heady and safety.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said California has set aside $9.7 million for seven pilot programs to target critical human needs, to provide lawyers and collaborate with legal aid on such things as domestic violence.  The results will be submitted in 2017, she said.

Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said efforts there to create forms for do-it-yourself (pro se) divorce stirred a storm of opposition among family law practitioners, but the court did it anyway.

Retired federal Judge Royal Furgeson of Dallas estimated as much as 75 percent of the country can’t afford lawyers.  “They had decided the court’s don’t count.  Our giant problem is we no longer serve our people.”

In his recent state of the judiciary speech in Texas Jefferson said, “A dark secret plagues our justice system, the middle class finds this justice system inaccessible and unworkable.”

Money Troubles

Despite their talk about support for the indigent, the panel’s title was: “Are Courts Dying?”

Cantil-Sakauye said in California “they are not dying but we are on life support.”

She said California, with the largest judiciary in the nation, has seen its budget cut by 50 percent in recent years, forcing elimination of innovative courts for elders, veterans, victims of domestic violence and mortgage fraud.

She said 4.5 million people are coming into our system without lawyers and they are not low income, they are middle income and business people, she said.

She sees little chance of the money being restored to the judiciary.

“We may never see what we had five years ago,” she said.

Lippman said things are not much different in New York.  The question to ask, he said, “is not why we are treated differently, but what are the dangers of treating us the same” as other parts of the government.

Jefferson said it is significant that three judges for the largest states have this happening.  “There is a budget crisis, but the amount it takes to fund courts is minuscule, less than one percent of the state budget,” he said.



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