The chief justices of California, Texas and New York and three federal judges deplored funding cuts and other roadblocks to public access to justice at an American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco Thursday.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she had reluctantly supported some increases in court fees as “desperate measures” in the face of deep funding cuts that have resulted in the closure of 40 courthouses and 77 courtrooms statewide.
“When it comes to keeping courts open, if these aren’t desperate measures, I’m afraid to see the future,” she said.
Cantil-Sakauye and the five other judges spoke at a session entitled “Are Courts Dying? The Decline of Open and Public Adjudication” on the first day of the ABA’s annual meeting at Moscone Center West.
About 8,000 lawyers and guests are attending the meeting, which continues through Tuesday.
The judges said public access to courts is impaired not only by funding cuts but also by the high cost of lawyers in civil cases and the so-called “outsourcing” of adjudication.
Examples of outsourcing, they said, are the use of private judges for those who can afford it and the use of mandatory, closed-door arbitration instead of open courts to resolve consumer disputes.
“There are reports that 75 percent of the people in our state can’t afford a lawyer” in civil cases, said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.
“There are people who have been denied their rights who will just give up,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Norma Shapiro of Philadelphia and retired U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson of Dallas said funding cuts are hurting federal as well as state courts.
They said the current U.S. budget sequestration is resulting in reductions in federal public defenders, limits on auxiliary services such as probation supervision and delays in needed technology upgrades.
“This is the 50th anniversary of Gideon,” said Shapiro, referring to the landmark 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court decision requiring states to provide lawyers to criminal defendants who can’t afford one.
“If this continues, there won’t be anyone to hear Gideon’s trumpet,” she said.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in that state, suggested the Gideon approach of publicly paid lawyers should be applied to some civil cases. He proposed that other changes, such as greater use of expert non-lawyers, should also be considered.
“Lots of people are unable to access the justice system,” Lippman said.
“We have a real problem in the courts in our cities, states and country. We’re going to have to figure it out,” he said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News