Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.
Austerity measures that target the courts can hinder enforcement of statutory rights and procedures — bringing to mind the famous saying, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Nevertheless, state courts throughout the country have experienced severe budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. “The justice system’s funding has been decreasing in constant dollars for at least two decades,” David Boies, renowned Bush v. Gore attorney and co-chairman of a commission formed by the American Bar Association to study court budget issues, told the New York Times last year. “We are now at the point where funding failures are not merely causing inconvenience, annoyances and burdens; the current funding failures are resulting in the failure to deliver basic justice.”
For domestic violence (DV) survivors who rely on the courts for a wide range of services, this “failure to deliver basic justice” can add an extra layer of difficulty to their pursuit of a life free from abuse. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has analyzed the impact of cutting court budgets, finding that over the past three years, dozens of state courts have decreased their hours of operation, reduced services and cut staff salaries in order to save money. The specific impact these cuts are having on DV cases has not been studied in depth and requires closer attention, but some states are reporting greater difficulties in timely restraining order hearings, enforcement of abuser sentences and decreased counseling capacity from court staff — suggesting a reduction in the efficacy of state courts in aiding DV survivors.
Eric Berkowitz’s recent article in California Lawyer delves into the difficulties California courts face in meeting restraining order requests from DV survivors due to crushing state court budget cuts. Attorney Protima Pandey of Bay Area Legal Aid was profiled in Berkowitz’s piece. “Things like the availability of a courthouse to hear restraining order cases within the three-week period, or seeing a mediator — these things are statutorily mandated,” she told me on the phone after a long morning of preparing restraining order applications for the DV survivors who came to her clinic’s door. “They are basic things that we used to take for granted. But we are starting to see these basic services being impacted.”
According to the NCSC, California’s judicial branch budget was reduced by over $300 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011. In response, California courts have had to reduce their hours of operation, imposed staff layoffs, and delayed filling vacancies in the clerks’ offices and in judicial support positions. They anticipate reducing court clerk office hours and reducing the number of civil courtrooms open. Some Branch locations will be closed and some mediation services will be affected as well.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was among the first to link these cuts to DV services in her recent State of the Judiciary address, when she pointed out that a rural California court with reduced hours of operation cannot meet all DV survivors’ requests for temporary restraining orders.
California’s budget crisis is more severe than that of many other states, but these challenges are not unique to California. Nevada has one of the worst DV records in the United States, having for two years in a row ranked first in the nation in the number of husbands killing their wives. According to Sue Meuschke, Executive Director of the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence (NNADV), Nevada is seeing struggles in the state’s ability to meet the needs of DV survivors overall — in part due to tight state court resources.
“In Nevada we’ve experienced cutbacks everywhere, so state courts are just one part of the story,” Meuschke said. “The heavy case load that is impacting all the courts in the state makes the ability to monitor sentencing, particularly on misdemeanor cases which most DV cases are, very difficult.”
Nevada judges are charged with handling all follow up to make sure sentences are being enforced, Meuschke said.
We have a requirement in Nevada that offenders attend batterers’ intervention courses, along with jail time, fines and other punishment. But courts have to figure out how to monitor compliance with sentencing, and that can be difficult with an overloaded judiciary.
The NCSC found that Nevada courts have reduced staff support for judges, court operating hours and assistance from retired judges. Nevada courts have also experienced staff furloughs, salary reductions and salary freezes. “As a result, some responses to requests are delayed and courtrooms sometimes go dark because they cannot pay for senior judge coverage,” NSCS states in its summary about Nevada courts’ cuts in services.
Similarly, Oregon courts have reduced their hours of operation, imposed staff layoffs, delayed filling judicial vacancies, delayed filling vacancies in the clerks’ offices and in judicial support positions, among other measures. “Budget cuts have led to the suspension of facilitation appointments, or in-person assistance with court staff,” said Judge Maureen McKnight, chief family court judge in Multnomah County, Oregon. “We’ve left DV survivors and family law litigants in general without a resource that used to assist them in processing papers.”
Meuschke feels that resource challenges may make women reluctant to formally charge abusers or pursue restraining orders. “If there is no follow up, if the courts can’t monitor sentencing implementation, then DV survivors are not going to be as likely to utilize the courts in the future.”