Financial woes are plaguing state courts across the nation forcing cutbacks and drastic cost-saving efforts and Illinois courts, including DuPage County, may be next. Although our court system has remained relatively unaffected, other states’ crises present a cautionary tale foreshadowing things to come for our great state if we do not undertake proactive measures to create a more stable, recession-proof funding system for our courts. The failure to act now will put our feet in the tracks of those states who have fallen before us.
Other States – A Cautionary Tale. Judiciaries across the nation are enduring the consequences of their underfunded, overcrowded, and overwhelmed courts. The 2008 recession caused the courts to be inundated with foreclosures, evictions, credit card collection cases, and bankruptcies. Despite the increase in judicial demand, state courts’ budgets have been cut by 10-15%. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that a fully funded judiciary would comprise a mere 1-2% of a state’s budget. Because 90% of a judiciary’s budget is personnel, we are seeing hiring freezes, layoffs, pay cuts, and even court closures as a result of these budget cuts. California, Florida and Georgia are on the frontline of the funding crisis enduring the worst of the symptoms of underfunding. What can be learned from these states could vaccinate Illinois courts from catching the underfunding flu.
The Los Angeles Superior Court in California is the largest trial court system in the nation, housing 600 courtrooms and employing 5,400 personnel. Los Angeles has watched the average disposition of a case go from less than two years in 2009 to more than four in 2012. Notwithstanding those delays and associated economic costs, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced in early March that it would lay off 300 employees, and close more than 50 courtrooms. Over the past two years, the Los Angeles Superior Court has already cut nearly $70 million in annual spending by laying off more than 500 employees. The more recent cuts will save an additional $48 million. California’s proposed budget for 2012-13 calls for more cuts and puts any hope of relief for the strained judiciary far out of reach.
In Florida, an uncontested divorce now takes about six months and criminal cases now routinely take more than a year before a trial is had. This delay incarcerates the guilty and innocent alike for up to a year before liberty is restored to the latter. Florida had a $3.8 billion budget shortfall in 2011 which made it particularly tough to solicit funds from the state coffers when the filing-fee funded court system was hit with a lull in foreclosure filings. As the scrutiny on lenders increased with regard to robo-signed foreclosure documents the number of foreclosure filings dropped precipitously resulting in Florida’s judiciary fund dropping from a $100 million surplus to a $78 million deficit in the blink of an eye. Hon. Joel Brown, Chief Judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida and Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander agree that a fee-based system leaves the judiciary too vulnerable to economic ebbs and flows.
“During the past ten years, the Legislature has enacted $66.3 million in increased costs while only increasing the Court's appropriation $18.8 million,” Alabama’s Chief Justice, Sue Cobb, said in her resignation statement, “…[the decision to resign] has been infinitely more difficult because of the inadequate funding budgeted by the Legislature for our judicial system. I desperately wanted to depart leaving the system on better financial footing than when I came.” Alabama is facing forensic backlogs, severe courtroom delays, and a 95-to-1 inmate to prison guard ratio. A $13.1 million decrease in state funding for state courts from 2011 to 2012 caused more than 400 employees to be laid off in 2011 and 29 prison facilities are 191 percent over capacity.
The State of Illinois.The Illinois legislature appropriates funding for salaries, benefits, office expenses, and support staff for all judges in Illinois. Circuit clerks, their employees and operations are funded by local revenues such as property taxes, filing fees and court-ordered fines and costs. In 2010 it cost $214 million to operate the 102 circuit clerk’s offices in Illinois. In 2010, more than $60.2 billion was appropriated to state agencies – only $326 million made its way to the Illinois judiciary. In 2011 the state allocated $310 million and 2012, $304 million. Despite the decreases in funding, the National Center for State Courts states that 8 judgeships will be added in Illinois in response to census data and the number of staff positions will remain untouched. Illinois is tightening its belt, echoing the demands of other state legislatures to their judiciary, “Do more with less.”
Cutting expenditures on non-essential services and implementing technology solutions to streamline document management and processes will help bridge the gap, but to what extent? If the Illinois legislature continues to squeeze the judicial branch at the current rate, no amount of technology will prevent the bottom from falling out on us as it did in California, Florida, Georgia and other states.
The Cause of the Crisis. A glaring common thread between the three hardest-hit states is that each of them share a spot in the top ten states hit hardest by foreclosures. In 2011, Florida had the 6th most foreclosure filings, Georgia 4th, and California 2nd. It could be that these states became too dependent on foreclosure filing fees to subsidize their respective state funding and began budgeting as if the increase in foreclosures would go on forever. Illinois, by the way, was 9th on the list of states hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. In 2003, DuPage County received just under $22 million in court fees, fines and forfeitures. In 2010, DuPage County saw $35.3 million in revenue derived from court fees, fines and forfeitures and our County Board budgets for about the same in expenses. The 60% increase can only be explained by the foreclosure boom. We, too, have become reliant on a volatile revenue source - what happens if/when the filing fees stop rolling in? Our reliance on a variable funding source for primarily fixed operating costs puts us on track to become the next cautionary tale.
But dependence on filing-fees is not the only problem. Legislative underfunding is undeniable and the failure to adequately fund state courts has left the counties to fend for themselves. Property taxes can only go so far and the county boards have had little choice in deciding how to fund our courts. On the one hand the courts must expand to accommodate the influx of lawsuits and time-sucking pro se defendants, and on the other the courts must remember that the housing crisis is temporary and dependence on the filing fees to fund an inflated judiciary is a recipe for disaster.
The state’s funding of our judicial system is limited to Judges’ salaries, benefits, support staff and office expenses. Our government is comprised of checks and balances – three independent branches of government that perform unique roles in our society with just enough overlap to keep the other branches honest. Our general assembly is well funded. Our executive branch is well funded. A mere .5% of the general funds to an entire branch of government entrusted with the paramount responsibility of the administering justice and protecting our freedoms.
Solutions. Ignoring filing fees and court fines will not solve the problem either. But just because the revenue is there this year does not mean it will be there next year. Now is the time to invest in infrastructure that will allow our courts to operate efficiently with significantly less funding. Now is the time to tell our legislature that the judicial branch of our government is too important to allow it to be sacrificed in favor of the legislative and executive branches. Allowing our judiciary to be weakened by underfunding is not an option – the costs, financial and otherwise, are too great.
We must do more with less until the state recognizes its responsibility to properly fund our courts. Technology is one way to do this. In DuPage County 85% of cases are filed online while Cook County boasts a mere 3% filed online. Technological solutions can be implemented to increase efficiency, reduce the need for human capital, and provide improved access to justice. Online filing, fine paying, and case access have increased timely disposition of cases from 74.1 percent in Boston, Massachusetts to 89.8 percent in 2 years. Replacing court reporters with digital audio recording equipment, as seen in DuPage County, is another way courts can do more with less.
Alternative dispute resolution is another way our courts can do more with less. Cases with pro se parties will often times require more attention and time from the court than cases where both sides have legal representation. Pro se cases, small claims, and less complicated matters are particularly good candidates for alternative dispute resolution, like mediation and arbitration. These programs can encourage parties to explore settlement early on rather than dragging the case out through litigation.
By reducing restrictions on state funding, or line items, state courts will be able to allocate the funds where they are needed most. Some counties need additional facilities, while others need to add judges to help spread out the caseload. Making state funding more flexible allows local governments an opportunity to employ solutions to problems that may be unique to their locale.
Finally, the Illinois judiciary needs you. The Illinois legislature needs to know that taxpayers care about the judicial branch. We need to let our representatives know that we have seen what an underfunded judiciary looks like in places like Florida and California and that we refuse to allow Illinois to follow in those footsteps. Shirking the responsibility of funding off on the county boards has put our court system in a vulnerable position where our ability to administer justice is contingent on the continuation of a foreclosure crisis. The failure of our state to fully fund a branch of its own government will be more costly in the long-run than any short-term savings.
 American Bar Association Report, “Crisis in the Courts: Defining the Problem” at p. 4
 Ofgang, Kenneth, "Superior Court to Lay Off 300, Close Courtrooms-Sources." Metropolitan News-Enterprise, March 5, 2012.
 Sanchez, MarieSam, “Los Angeles Superior Court to Eliminate 300 Staffers.” Cerritos-ArtesiaPatch, March 7, 2012.
 Kritsky, Greg, “The Economist: Judiciary the ‘Feeblest Branch.’” Gavel Grab, September 30, 2011
 Florida Court System Faces Funding Crisis." Interview by Greg Allen. National Public Radio. NPR, Miami, Florida, Apr. 5 2011. Radio. Transcript.
 Benton, Shannon. “Fall in Foreclosures Hurts Courts.” Tampa Bay Online. March 27, 2011.
 Id. see also Pillow, Travis, “Lawmakers vow to put judicial system on steady financial ground”, The Florida Current, November 1, 2011.
 Bell Cobb, Sue. "Resignation Statement from Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb." Supreme Court of Alabama, Montgomery. June 29, 2011. Address. Available at http://www.wakacbs8.com/news/8100-resignation-statement-from-alabama-chief-justice-sue-bell-cobb.html.
 Steele, Cameron, “Delays and Dilemmas: Budget Cuts Slow Down the Wheel of Justice in County Courts,” March 4, 2012.
 State of Illinois, Welcome to Illinois Courts. “State and Local Funding for the Illinois Courts.” http://www.state.il.us/court/General/Funding.asp
 National Center for State Courts, Illinois. http://www.ncsc.org/information-and-resources/budget-resource-center/states-activities-map/illinois.aspx
 “States with the Highest Foreclosure Rate in 2011. 2011. Graphic. CNBC.comWeb. March 19, 2012. http://www.cnbc.com/id/29655038/States_With_the_Highest_Foreclosure_Rates
 Pallasch, Abdon M. and Donovan, Lisa. “Brown, Munoz battle over who best to modernize circuit courts,” Chicago Suntimes. March 12, 2012
 American Bar Association Report, “Crisis in the Courts: Defining the Problem” at p. 15
Jonathan P. Crannell is an associate attorney with the Bolingbrook law firm of Quinn, Meadowcroft & Marker. His practice focuses on civil litigation primarily representing plaintiffs in personal injury and workers’ compensation matters. Mr. Crannell received his undergraduate degree from Miami University of Ohio and his law degree at Chicago-Kent College of Law.