Delegations from 37 states and territories are converging on Charlotte, N.C. today to discuss how budget and economic concerns are affecting state court operations -- and to enlist help from all branches of government in solving the crisis.
Courts are curtailing hours and some are even closing permanently, says American Bar Association president H. Thomas Wells Jr., who convened the summit in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC.) Probation and parole services are being curtailed, and sentencing proceedings are being delayed because of the budget crunch, Wells reports. "The economy is wreaking havoc with state budgets, adversely affecting our courts' ability to deliver justice," Wells said in a statement in advance of the conference. The support of all parts of state government, he added, is needed to "insure our justice system remains the envy of the world.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is addressing the conference, as is Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall.
To tee up the conference, the NCSC commissioned a nationwide poll of 1,200 adults that offers mixed results about the public's awareness and support of state court issues.
Three-quarters of those surveyed gave their state courts a positive confidence rating -- higher than their governor, state legislature or local government. Large percentages also want all three branches to work together on justice-related issues like prison overcrowding. Nine in 10 think the head of all three branches of government should meet regularly to discuss the justice system, and three-quarters think such meetings should be required by law.
On the downside, the poll showed fairly dismal lack of knowledge about state government. Unprompted, only one in five correctly named all three branches, while 44 per cent drew a blank and could not name any branch. About half knew how their state judges are selected, though awareness was higher in states where judges are elected.
“This survey lays down a marker: Americans expect more from all three branches, and to get results, they want turf battles and partisan squabbles to be put to the side,” said NCSC president Mary McQueen.
UPDATE: In her keynote address, O'Connor focused not only on budget problems facing the courts but on issues of independence and increasingly costly and political judicial elections, according to an American Bar Association report on her speech.
O'Connor said the public is "growing increasingly skeptical of elected judges in particular.” She cited surveys showing that public trust in judges has declined as judicial election campaigns have become more heated and expensive. O'Connor voiced concern that the public will view judges as “just politicians in robes.”
According to the report, O'Connor made specific reference to West Virginia, where a dispute now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over the influence of judicial campaign money originated. In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company, the issue is whether a judge can be constitutionally required to recuse in a case where a party is a major campaign donor -- in this case, to the tune of $3 million.
“It just doesn’t look good,” O'Connor said. “West Virginia cannot possibly benefit from having that much money injected into cases." She added, “The mere appearance of bias is enough to irreparably harm” public confidence in the judicial system.