Washington is in last place among all others in state funding for trial courts. That's right. We are dead last, 50th place behind some of the poorest states in our nation.
In this recession, the trial courts that handle some of the most important cases affecting everyday persons in your community are slated to be cut even more.
It's easy — too easy — to say, so what? Everyone is hurting in this recession.
That's true, but when you are talking about your right to access the courts, it assumes proportions of constitutional magnitude. We have fought wars to retain our rights guaranteed under our constitutions, both state and federal, yet by looking the other way, we are leaving our courts in jeopardy.
Take a moment to look at the faces of the people served by the trial courts.
It's the battered woman or man who needs a protection order to keep him or her and the children safe from abuse. It's the mom or dad whose child is out of control and no one will help. It's the small business owner who needs a contract dispute decided in order to stay in business. It's the runaway teen who thinks the streets are safe, but you know better. It's the child who won't go to school. It's the victim of a crime looking for justice. Or it's the parent in a divorce who desperately needs money to put food on the table for the family — and the other spouse won't pay.
So when we talk about the Legislature cutting funding to the courts, these are some of the people who will suffer. Whether we are one of those faces or not, we all have to worry about the safety of our communities when courts are not adequately funded.
The judicial branch is a separate branch of government. Yet we must rely on the Legislature and cash-strapped local governments to fund the trial courts. State funding to the entire judicial branch in Washington is less than 1 percent of the state budget.
State funding for trial courts and their state agency already was slashed 19.3 percent in 2009. Those cuts to the trial courts' bare-bones budgets include things required by the Constitution or by statute.
State funding for interpreters has been cut by 34 percent, leaving some people facing the prospect of not understanding what is happening in court because they cannot understand the language.
Volunteers who serve as guardians ad litem in the child welfare system, watching out for the best interests of children, have been cut by more than 20 percent in the last two years. These cuts are especially short-sighted because these volunteers save government millions of dollars.
Youth crime is down, due in large part to research-based programs in juvenile court, but funding for probation officers and these evidence-based programs was cut, too. Courts have no control over the number of cases that are filed. We must handle every criminal, civil, domestic and juvenile case that is filed. Ordinary people rely on the court system to help them in their most difficult times, especially now when so many people are living month-to-month and need the resources that only courts can provide.
Justice is the business of government. We rely on our courts to bring order to our society, even in recessions. Government has a fundamental responsibility to provide a functioning court system to the people — without one, our democracy is at risk. Like police and fire services, we all need an accessible court system - even if we never have to use it ourselves.
Tell your legislators that they need to adequately fund the judicial branch of government and if they can, restore money cut from the courts.
Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Warning is president of the Superior Court Judges Association.