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State bar needs to address court underfunding

By: Denise M. Champagne//January 26, 2012

State bar needs to address court underfunding

By: Denise M. Champagne//January 26, 2012//

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American Bar Association President William T. Robinson III discusses the impacts of court underfunding Wednesday at the New York State Bar Association’s presidential summit at the Hilton New York in New York City. Brad Hamilton/New York State Bar News

Underfunding of courts is not unique to New York.

American Bar Association President William T. Robinson Wednesday told members of the New York State Bar Association that the magnitude of the problem and scope of responsibility is greater in New York though, because of its large and diverse population and its position as the economic center of the world.

Court funding was one of the main issues addressed at the three-hour presidential summit at the Hilton New York, where Robinson commended NYSBA for its recent report outlining the negative impacts of budget cuts to state courts.

The “Report of the Executive Committee on the Impact of Recent Budget Cuts in New York State Court Funding” highlights how the cuts affect families, civil litigants, criminal defendants, judges, attorneys and court employees.

“I wish I could say that I was surprised about the conclusions of that report,” Robinson said. “Sadly, I wasn’t. I wish I could say this is an isolated problem. It is not. States across our nation are trying to survive with similarly anemic budgets.”

He said 42 court systems across the country sustained significant cuts last year, including New York which cut $170 million from its original $2.7 billion budget proposal. Robinson said California is in even worse shape, having closed 23 of its courtrooms and laid off 40 percent of its personnel.

“In traveling across the country, … it is fascinating to me how shocked people are when they become aware of the statistics that we recite with such pain and disappointment,” he said. “The people approach us and want to know ‘What can we do about this?’”

Robinson said lawyers and judges are standing up. He said there needs to be discussions about access to justice because it is the lifeblood of the nation’s democracy. He said the courts are adapting as best they can, but some cuts are too deep.

“Sure New York is not alone, but that does not make it acceptable,” Robinson said. The example you’re setting is being noticed and paid attention to. This bar refused to be silent and you lead by example.”

He said the ABA wants to make it easier for judges and lawyers to advocate. It is offering a new Court Funding Portal on its website ( to understand the crisis, continuing to work with its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, has teamed up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to talk about what courts mean to businesses and sent an “action packet” to the nation’s 200 bar association presidents to help them make a local impact.

In addition, Robinson said the 2012 Law Day theme for May 1 is “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.”

“We must remember that this is not a problem that can be solved overnight,” he said. “We must teach our children [and] our grandchildren why our courts are essential to liberty. We, as lawyers, understand that independent and adequately funded courts are key to constitutional democracy and constitutional democracy is key to freedom. That’s just how important this issue is. From the beginning of our country, Americans before us fought and died for these principles.”

Robinson was introduced by NYSBA President Vincent E. Doyle III of Erie County who has made “Justice for All” the theme of his one-year term in office.

The Hon. Judith S. Kaye, retired state chief judge and of counsel to the New York City firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates, said the state bar needs to educate the public about the impacts of court underfunding and come up with solutions.
Those were the two goals she outlined in the “Perspectives on State Court Funding” panel, which she moderated.

“We all know that you can’t step in to solve something unless you appreciate it fully, see the problem in its every ramification,” Judge Kaye said. “We’re in crisis and we need to do something about it.”

Elaine R. Jones, who serves on the ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, noted the crisis in state court funding has been in the works for 20 to 30 years. She said the task force has heard from 10 of the nation’s chief judges, including New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who have outlined the problems in their various states.

“This issue is nationwide, it’s systemic and it is a problem that’s going to take us some years to address, but we must have the fortitude to stick with it,” Jones said, noting attorneys, as officers of the court, have the primary responsibility to come up with solutions.

One example she gave was Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz who reported a chasm between legislators and the courts in his state when he became its chief justice six years ago.

Jones said his court meets all over the state and conducts town hall meetings that legislators are invited to attend. The result is they have forged relationships and rather than the court system being viewed as a nuisance, Jones said legislators are asking how they can help.

The word needs to get out to corporations to realize the impact court underfunding has on their ability to profit, according to Nels A. Pearsall of Los Angeles-based Micronomics Inc., who said court delays have significant costs.

Judge Margaret J. Finerty, a partner at Getnick & Getnick LLP in New York City, who chaired the NYSBA report working group, said the impacts of the court system cuts are eroding the public’s confidence in their ability to access courts and the courts’ ability to protect them.
Consolidation of the courts and getting a dedicated funding stream were recommended by the final panelist, Abraham Lackman, president of Praxis Insights, a New York City educational and governmental consulting firm, who said he has been doing budgets for New York for more than a decade.

He cited the 2007 Office of Court Administration report, commissioned by then-Chief Judge Kaye, which recommended changing the state’s court system structure. “A Report by the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts,” chaired by Carey R. Dunne, estimated savings for litigants and the court system at $500 million, Lackman said, noting OCA would save about $60 to $70 million a year. He said the judiciary needs to advocate for its own funding stream.

“I’m handing you a magic wand and asking you to carry that forward,” said Judge Kaye, who also suggested turning the Dunne report into a done deal.

The summit also consisted of a second panel on “Enhancing Representation in Immigration Matters: Examining the Parameters of Padilla v. Kentucky and Elevating the Quality and Standards of Representation,” which was moderated by Julia Preston, a national immigration correspondent for the New York Times.

A webcast of the summit is available on NYSBA’s website at

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