CHICAGO — Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride said the American Bar Association really hit the nail on the head when it crafted this past year’s Law Day theme: “no courts, no justice, no freedom.”
Borrowing another line from the ABA, Kilbride told attendants of a Friday morning session on court funding at the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA)/Illinois Judges Association (IJA) Joint Meeting in Chicago that “even the most eloquent constitution is worthless with no one to enforce it.”
In order to enforce the law and deliver justice, he said, the “the court system has to be fully funded.”
As chief justice of the Supreme Court in a cash-strapped state, Kilbride is more than familiar with seeing his budget cut.
Kilbride has appeared before the Illinois General Assembly’s appropriation committees twice now to request state funding for the court. Both times, he stressed the importance of properly funding probation services.
Unfortunately, he said, it “hasn’t made any difference” as the legislature has continued to give the court less money to reimburse counties for providing these services.
To cushion the blow in Fiscal Year 2013, the court reallocated some of the money in other parts of its budget to better fund probation.
The court, he said, received about a $281 million budget this year with about $87,000 of that amount specifically earmarked to fund probation services. Kilbride said that represents about $6 million less for probation than the previous year.
While the state’s fiscal crisis over the past few years has cut the budgets of most state agencies, Kilbride said “economic stability is dependent upon the courts.”
“Our courts are the way we resolve disputes” between businesses, he said, adding that studies have shown economies with efficient judicial systems will produce higher total wealth.
Fifth District Appellate Court Justice James Wexstten moderated the Friday morning session, “Cutting off the Third Branch: Court Funding and Access to Justice in Illinois and Beyond.”
Wexstten, who serves as co-chair of the ISBA Special Committee on Fair and Impartial Courts, brought up a recent survey of chief judges when he introduced the session and speakers.
The survey, Kilbride said, shows that 65 percent of the state’s chief judges believe that probation funding is inadequate. And about 85 percent of the chief judges said they believe funding probation services is a critical need.
This need, along with other reasons, spurred the court to create an advisory committee on probation policy. The committee had its first meeting earlier this month.
Like Kilbride, Michael Tardy, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, said putting more money toward funding probation can actually save the state money in the long run.
For instance, he said, it costs about $3,250 a year to monitor an adult on probation, compared to more than $22,000 to house an offender in the Department of Corrections.
American Bar Association President Laura Bellows, a Chicago lawyer, also spoke at Friday’s court funding session.
Bellows said Illinois is lucky to have a chief justice who understands the importance of probation and is willing to fight for funding.
Unfortunately, she said, Illinois is not alone when it comes to court funding problems.
California has had to close courtrooms in the wake of its budget crisis and the chief judge of the federal court in Chicago considered shutting the doors to his courtroom one day a week.
“It’s time for us to move from silence to very, very vocal,” Bellows said of the ABA, explaining that she’s willing to “cause trouble where it needs to be” caused.
Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for States Courts in Virginia, said state courts throughout the nation have been making do with less for years, but that keeping vacancies unfilled and positions frozen can’t last forever.
“It’s a short term fix,” she said, explaining that state court leaders need to explain to their lawmakers “in very real terms” what they need to not only survive, but to grow.
Court leaders, she said, need to have two strategies, one geared toward legislators and one to the public, which might not fully understand the reach of the judicial branch.
McQueen said members of the public should be aware of how much the court system can affect small businesses, which play a part in communities across the nation.
If they get caught up in litigation, she said, they can run into major problems securing and maintaining funding.
“We need to step up” and “show some support for legal funding,” McQueen said.