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Our Views: Scaling justice
Georgias court funding cuts cause delays, violate rights, hurt economy
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises all Americans a fair and speedy trial. Thus, if we believe in applying that sacred document to all public policies, as we should, full support of our court system must be a top priority of government.

Yet that evidently is not the case in Georgia right now.

Last week, the American Bar Association's Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System gathered judges, court administrators and other legal experts in Atlanta to discuss the effect of financial constraints on our courts. The group says cuts have led to court backlogs, staff reductions and speedy trial violations in some states.

"Things have only gotten worse. What has been a problem for a long time is now a crisis," ABA President Steve Zack said.

In Georgia, case backlogs have forced long waits for matters such as child support hearings. Yet lawmakers have slashed court funding by 6 percent this fiscal year and 14 percent last year.

Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said her office was forced to lay off seven workers, close its law library and give up office space. She said the court has to solicit pen and pencil donations from vendors and has drafted unpaid student interns to handle office duties.

A recent study shows that such cuts are having a negative economic impact as well. The State Bar of Georgia recently commissioned a study by the Washington Economics Group on the effect of cutbacks in court spending. The findings are eye-opening.

From 2000 to '10, budget constraints led to an 8.2 percent decrease in real dollars, adjusted for inflation, spent on the judiciary. That has led to delayed trials and fewer judges handling more cases.

This has dealt a blow to our economy. The findings show a loss of between 3,457 and 7,098 jobs, mostly in higher wage industries. That has led to a loss of between $176 million and $375 million in labor income, leading to a total adverse effect between $337 million and $802 million statewide.

That's no small impact in a state struggling to overcome a three-year recession and regain its status as one of the nation's fastest-growing economies.

Cuts in state funding for courts have forced local jurisdictions to carry more of the cost burden for superior and juvenile courts. Superior courts statewide suffered a 13 percent decline in funding in 2009, while experiencing a 24 percent increase in the number of cases over the five years preceding. From 2000 to 2008, the study found that cases increased almost 30 percent in superior courts and nearly 43 percent in state courts.

That's a big hit on local jurisdictions that are bringing in less revenue and struggling with their own balance sheets. In many areas, communities are strapped to provide adequate courtroom space for a growing number of civil and criminal cases.

In this era of government downsizing and budget cutting, there is much useful debate over the services our federal, state and local agencies should provide with our tax dollars. Sensible conservatives agree that right-sized, fiscally sound government is a priority, and ensuring public safety and justice is one of its key duties.

We can argue over entitlements vs. personal responsibilities at every level. But the courts are one area of government service for which there should be no such quibbling. After all, there is no free-enterprise alternative we can turn to.

This effect isn't just on individuals but also on businesses that must turn frequently to litigation. This has a damaging impact on the state's overall business climate and may lead some companies to choose to locate elsewhere.

When court cases drag out, people miss work, affecting productivity. Businesses and individuals then incur greater legal costs, perhaps a boon to attorneys but a sock in the wallet to everyone else who needs a decision rendered quickly and fairly.

In addition, reduction in funding for indigent defense has kept many who are accused of crimes from receiving the level of qualified counsel to which they are entitled.

And there is another tangible effect to this delay in justice: Between 2008 and '09, fees and fines collected by Georgia courts declined by $52 million. That's less money coming into a court system already facing budget cuts, a deficit feeding upon itself.

We can't underfund courts and expect our society to function normally, even in tough times. The judicial branch is a key pillar of our three branches of government, and deserves the same resources as the legislative and executive divisions.

Georgia's legislature must continue to prioritize the key needs of government against "wish lists" that help elected officials earn votes. As stated well by Frank Norton Jr. on our pages two weeks ago, there is a big difference between government "wants" and "needs." A new library, park, ballfield or museum qualifies as a "want." Police and fire protection, safe roads and a court system that dispenses justice fairly and swiftly are "needs" and can't be done on the cheap.

However, because judges' duty of reviewing legislation often puts them at odds with lawmakers, it may be popular to cut court funding just to prove a point. But such practices are an affront to true democracy, and as the study shows, a severe economic burden for the state to bear.

Lawmakers need to quit treating our judicial system like another budget excess and restore funding to the fullest extent possible. Our constitution requires it, our economy needs it and our sense of fairness and justice insists that it be done.