It is clear that once again lawmakers in Hartford are going to spend much of next year seeking to reduce spending in state government as a means of balancing the budget. A projected shortfall of more than $1 billion means that almost every budget item is vulnerable to spending reductions.
In the face of this challenge, it is important for the legislature to decide at the beginning of the process which parts of the budget should be classified as essential to the general public and maintained at current levels. Our state court system surely must be placed in this category.
The Judicial Branch interacts with the citizens of our state on a daily basis. It is the only place Connecticut residents can turn to when seeking justice in both criminal and civil proceedings. There is no realistic opportunity to privatize our justice system to reduce costs and any spending reductions that lead to curtailed access to the courts can mean the denial of justice. The right to speedy access to justice is one of the cornerstones of the American justice system.
In 2016 the Judicial Branch took steps to reduce costs by closing the Danbury Juvenile Court and the courthouse in Willimantic as well as reductions in court personnel. The Connecticut Bar Association opposed these decisions. While these court closings and cuts in staff may seem like small steps, they will have tremendous consequences for the individuals, families and businesses who now may be required to travel greater distances for court hearings or trials, and have to contend with more crowded dockets with fewer clerks and other personnel to help manage them.
There is no doubt that if funds are made available, the use of technology and other innovations can be used to incrementally reduce costs in the Connecticut court system over time. However, it is very important to do everything in our power to preserve services and access to those services by avoiding – where possible – the closing of courthouses across the state.
Courthouse closings effect everyone, including businesses in and around them, but are especially burdensome for Connecticut residents who cannot afford extended in-state travel requiring added expense or time away from work or family. In this way, closing a courthouse is as significant as closing a school or a firehouse.
Any budget decisions related to Judicial Branch spending reductions should be made thoughtfully and with concern for the special role of the courts in the lives of Connecticut citizens. Legislative leadership should seek out and listen to advice from the attorneys who work in the courts every day. Attorneys representing clients with cases before the courts have the most practical knowledge of where efficiencies can be realized without diminishing service and eroding the Rule of Law.
Gov. Dannel Malloy and the General Assembly should revisit spending reductions made to the Judicial Branch during the last legislative session. Funding should be restored if that is what is necessary to ensure a properly functioning court system and access to justice for all.
There are many competing interests for limited financial resources as the next legislative session gets underway, but there is no doubt that our court system is an essential government service – and unlike most others – is part of the state constitution. Access to the court system is a fundamental right guaranteed to all Connecticut citizens and should not be compromised.
Monte Frank is a practicing attorney with the firm Cohen and Wolf, P.C. and president of the Connecticut Bar Association.