Underfunded Court Systems Can Lead to a Loss of Constitutional Rights

Post by Randall Ryder

State judicial systems around the country are becoming overburdened because of inadequate funding. In Georgia, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein is concerned the current system threatens the constitutional rights of civil litigants and criminal defendants. Hunstein views the crisis as reaching a boiling point, noting that her speech was a "come-to-Jesus speech on the implications of funding cuts in the courtroom.” 

Hunstein noted that caseloads within the system have increased by 20% over the last five years, but funding has gone down. Hunstein explained the increasingly tight budget has forced the courts to lay off staff, closed law libraries, and court closures one day a month, with perhaps more closings in the future.

The situation is similar in Minnesota, where Chief Justice Magnuson recently stepped down after only two years on the bench because of personal reasons. Magnuson, who is friends with the state’s Governor, has frequently criticized the Governor’s proposed cuts to the judiciary. Last month, Magnuson noted that he was disappointed in more proposed budget cuts for next year. Magnuson has also noted that the state needs more public defenders. 

Budget cuts may effect public defenders and criminal defendants more than anyone else. Public defenders are notorious for having massive workloads, well beyond what the ABA recommends per year. Too many cases mean each defendant theoretically gets less time with their attorney. Importantly, public defenders represent more individuals charged with everything from misdemeanors to felonies.

Having inadequate time to spend with clients charged with felonies creates an enormous problem; as noted above, it may rise to the level of a loss of constitutional rights. Not having enough time to spend on a particular case may violate a Defendant’s right to counsel. Because of the backlog of cases, defendants who cannot afford bail may sit in jail for months before they case is brought to trial. This effectively creates an incentive for poor defendants to reach an early plea bargain because they do not want to wait for trial in jail. Suffice to say, overworked is a serious problem, and a problem that needs to be solved.

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