COMMENTARY: State courts in crisis: One 'right now' solution to underfunding

By Stephen N. Zack

All of us in the legal profession know there's a crisis in the state courts: some of the country's largest and most important state systems, including New York, face new cuts to already inadequate budgets. There is no magic bullet to this problem, which is why the American Bar Association has formed the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System chaired by David Boies and Ted Olson. This task force will recommend many possible solutions. But there is one potential, $15 billion answer to the problem that can be tapped into, right now, and Congress is getting behind it.

The answer is to leverage an existing program in the Department of Treasury to collect long-overdue court-ordered fines, restitution and other financial obligations from federal tax refunds. The National Center for State Courts estimates that there's an accumulated total of $15 billion in such fees. Courts and crime victims do not have the resources to collect on those avoiding their responsibilities. This program would offer a practical, fair way to secure those funds.

The effort is carefully crafted: only the dodgers of debts associated with criminal convictions and major traffic violations would be targeted. Those owing civil judgments and traffic tickets would not. This new effort would not cost the federal or state governments a dime: the program is already operational and any minor, additional expenses would be reimbursed from the refunds. And states can opt in so there's no mandate to join. It's an easy, innovative way to direct more funds toward cash-strapped court systems.

The fact that the idea has early, bipartisan traction underscores how smart and creative it is. Rep. Paulsen (R-MN) and Sen. Wyden (D-OR) have introduced identical bills in the House and Senate as the "Crime Victim Restitution and Court Fee Intercept Act." All lawyers should thank these two for their efforts.

Hundreds of lawyers from across the country have been asking their legislators to get on board during "ABA Day in Washington," the association's annual volunteer lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. ABA Day-organized visits to congressional offices have been focused equally on three issues vital to a functioning U.S. justice system. Besides building momentum behind this new court funding mechanism, bar leaders have pressed for faster, less contentious handling of judicial nominations in order to reduce the high vacancy rate on the federal bench. There's also been a major push to spare Legal Services Corporation from the budget ax, since the tight economy has legal aid in high demand.

The ABA is an extremely effective national voice of the profession before the federal government, and the association's focus is on the issues we know matter most to you: essential justice system protections and reforms. But our voice is always stronger when you add yours. I encourage you to reach out directly to your legislators. Ask them to strengthen access to justice by improving state court funding, reducing judicial vacancies and protecting legal aid providers.


Stephen N. Zack is president of the American Bar Association. He is the administrative partner in the Miami office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.

Published: Fri, Apr 15, 2011