EDITED BY JAMES PODGERS / PODGERSJ@STAFF.ABANET.ORG
Government branches addressing justice
issues still feel some tremors
BY JAMES PODGERS
by state governments to
the financial squeeze of
the recession is causing
the fissures that sometimes
come between the three
branches—executive, legislative and judicial—to
open a little wider and to
be a little more jagged
than they are during less
“States need to find
places where they can plug
their budgets, and they’re
Roy Barnes: Indigent defense services in need of aid.
pretty much out of ways to
do it,” said Susan K. Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the
States, at a recent gathering convened to discuss preserving independence
and impartiality of courts in the face of budgetary and other pressures.
The theme of the national summit—held May 7-9 in Charlotte, N.C.—
was “Justice is the business of government.” It was sponsored by the
ABA Presidential Commission on Fair and Impartial State Courts in cooperation with the National Center for State Courts. The commission was
appointed by ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr., a partner at Maynard,
Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala.
The implications for courts in states facing budget crises could be profound. While calls for greater collaboration between the branches received widespread support from attendees at the summit, some speakers
said accomplishing that goal will require chief justices and other members of the judiciary to engage in more outreach with representatives of
the other branches. Judges also must be more visible advocates of justice
programs without compromising their impartiality on the bench, some
“Just because you’re a judge does not mean you should act like a monk,”
said Roy E. Barnes, a member of the Georgia General Assembly for nearly a quarter-century before starting a four-year term as governor in 1999.
The battle for budget dollars increasingly is a source of friction between
the government branches, Barnes said. A case in point, he said, is defense
services for indigents in criminal cases.
“What’s happening in indigent defense in this country is abominable,”
said Barnes, who heads the Barnes
Law Group in Marietta, Ga., and has
announced he is running for governor of Georgia again. “Each one of
us should hang our head in shame.”
Georgia, he said, “has taken money from public defender programs
and allocated it to other things.
Sentencing and incarceration of
convicted criminals also are budgetary sore points, Urahn noted. She
cited findings in a March Pew report that corrections services cost
the states more than $50 billion a
year and consume $1 out of every
$15 in discretionary funds available
to the states. But legislatures that
cut funding for corrections services,
Urahn said, are likely to see problems in the area get worse.
The judiciary now must be more
prepared than ever to justify its
budget requests, said David Adkins,
executive director and CEO of the
Council of State Governments,
based in Lexington, Ky.
“Merely advocating for the courts
as they are may be inadequate,” Adkins said, “when so many people feel
disenfranchised from the process.”
JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: ‘AWFUL’
JUST AS SOME SPEAKERS URGED THE
judiciary to become more active at
the policy level, there were warnings that the credibility of the courts
in the public mind may be crumbling on another front as judicial
elections—held in some form in 39
states—become increasingly costly
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor voiced
those concerns in her keynote address that opened the summit.
“I’m still resolute that how we select our judges is crucial to a fair and
impartial judiciary,” O’Connor told
the gathering. “The public is growing increasingly skeptical of elected
judges in particular.” Warning of a