We should all care about court funding reduction

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unless you are charged with a criminal offense, or become involved in a civil lawsuit, why should you care if Alabama’s court system grinds to a halt for lack of funding? The reasons may be more pressing than you think.

Gov. Robert Bentley invoked proration of 10.6 percent in the General Fund budget, an unavoidable move as tax revenues have not met expectations. Across state agencies, that will feel like a cut of more than 20 percent because the fiscal year is half over.

The state court system may not feel the full weight of proration because of a court ruling in the 1990s that limits how much can be cut through proration. But that won’t protect Alabama courts from cuts next fiscal year.

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The governor’s proposed budget for state courts next year is $126 million — 15 percent less than Chief Justice Robert Malone requested. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, state courts received $152 million. …

For those who are innocent of the offenses for which they have been charged, such delays are unjust. Whether they are held in jail or waiting trial on bail, they deserve their day in court as soon as possible.

Those who are guilty, of course, aren’t so eager. They know their best chance of avoiding justice is to delay it. Witnesses move away or their memories fade. Investigators take new jobs or evidence grows cold. But even more significant, there is no real threat of a jury trial.

The reality is that only a small minority of cases ever come to trial. Most are settled out of court. As a practical matter, it would be impossible to try all the charges brought by grand juries. As court dockets back up, prosecutors lose their best leverage — threat of a trial — to get a guilty plea from a guilty defendant.

Businesses, families, employers and employees — citizens in general — depend on our court system to establish civil rights and protections of all sorts.

Our courts also face a leadership challenge. Republican voters chose Roy Moore as their candidate for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Democrats will have Harry Lyon. It isn’t clear that either possesses the wisdom, tact and demeanor to manage the impending crisis for state courts. …

Alabama’s courts need adequate funding. With the time remaining in his job, we hope Malone can work with the Legislature to avert a crisis.

– The Tuscaloosa News