Opinion

The Podium

A penny for the courts

With just a penny more of each tax dollar allocated to the judicial branch we can solve the underfunding and understaffing crisis in our state courts.

Nobody seems to want pennies anymore. Most stores even have small containers next to the register where you can leave unwanted pennies. Gone are the days of penny candy and the times when people would reveal their thoughts for a penny. Has the penny lost all of its value?

What most people do not know, however, is the value of the penny to our justice system. Massachusetts state courts have been underfunded for years resulting in furloughs, staff layoffs, court closures and an ever increasing backlog of cases. With just a penny more of each tax dollar allocated to the judicial branch we can solve the underfunding and understaffing crisis in our state courts. This, in turn, will have a positive impact on the Massachusetts economy. Just a penny more.

Studies discussed in a white paper released last month by DRI -- The Voice of the Defense Bar make the business case for a fully funded and staffed judiciary. Inadequate funding of the state court system has an adverse impact on the economy as a whole. For fiscal year 2015, for example, only 2 percent of the Massachusetts state budget has been allocated for our judiciary and legal services. An estimated 80 percent of these funds are used for personnel. As a result, funding cuts immediately show up in layoffs, court closures, and delayed trials. Due to funding, staffing levels in the Massachusetts courts have dropped by 1,100 since 2005 and the impact has been profound. The layoffs result in lower tax revenues, higher unemployment rates, and loss of revenue for the surrounding businesses.

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Efforts to quantify the economic harm caused by underfunding have revealed staggering losses. For example, a 2009 Micronomics Group study of the County of Los Angeles revealed that superior court budget deficits of between $79 million and $140 million would result in economic losses greater than $59 billion. Other studies have shown similar results. Given the established correlation between underfunding and economic loss, why would we ever choose not to fully fund and staff our state courts?

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Moreover, the status of the judicial system can deter future economic growth and the ability of Massachusetts to attract new companies to the Commonwealth. Seventy percent of corporate general counsel or senior litigators surveyed in 2012 by the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform indicated that a state’s litigation environment would very likely or likely impact their business decisions. Legal disputes that cannot be resolved in a timely manner make it less likely that businesses will expand or launch in that state thereby losing potential new jobs for our citizens. Similarly, the inability of criminal courts to enforce the rule of law is also a deterrent. Attracting new businesses to Massachusetts and fostering further economic growth of companies improves the lives of every citizen.

More than 95 percent of all civil and criminal matters are resolved by our state court systems and, thus, proper funding is critical. People have an inaccurate view of those using the justice system that is fed by both popular legal television shows and high profile cases. Thus, it is easy to dismiss the court funding issue by rationalizing that the courts are for others, but not for me. That is not only short sighted, but also untrue. People turn to the court system to resolve a variety of issues often when they are the most vulnerable. These matters include contested divorces, probate issues, and guardianship issues, and touch all of our citizens. One never knows when one might need the court system. But there is one thing for certain, and that is that when we turn to the courts, we want prompt resolution of our matter. The phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” is applicable to every case brought by every person regardless of the magnitude or nature of the claim.

Justice has been an integral part of our society since the days of the founding fathers. It is fitting that Abraham Lincoln’s face is on that much-needed penny, particularly since he practiced trial law for 25 years before becoming president. We need the legislature to find another penny in each tax dollar for our state courts. Pennies for justice are the best investment we can make for Massachusetts.

Kathleen Guilfoyle is a shareholder with Campbell Campbell Edwards & Conroy in Boston.