Washington lawmakers must remember justice is the business of government
Justice is a core function of government, writes King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen. She notes that more budget cuts are looming even though Washington ranks last among 50 states in funding for trial courts. She urges lawmakers to protect this important government function.
Special to The Times
In 1830, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall addressed the Virginia Constitutional Convention. He remarked that the judiciary affects "every man's fireside; it passes on his property, his reputation, his life, his all."
His remarks resonate for all of us, even if we haven't given thought to our history or civics classes for years. His words are as compelling today, especially given how funding cuts are affecting our judiciary in the state of Washington.
Washington is dead last — 50th out of 50 states — in terms of the funding the state provides to the trial courts, with the counties and cities shouldering virtually the whole burden. State funding for the entire judicial branch in Washington is less than 1 percent of the state budget. In 2009, state funding for the trial courts and their state agency was cut 19.3 percent. More cuts are proposed this year.
Who is affected by these cuts?
It's the battered spouse who needs a protection order to keep the family safe from further abuse. It's the mom or dad whose teenager is out of control and no one can help. It's the small-business owner who needs a contract dispute resolved so the business can stay open. It's the child who won't go to school. It's the victim of a crime looking for justice. It's the parent in a divorce who desperately needs money to keep food on the table for the kids, when the other parent won't pay.
So, when we talk about the Legislature cutting funding to the courts, these are some of the people who will suffer.
Cuts already taken 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 real prospect of not understanding what is happening to them in court when proceedings are in a language different from their own.
Volunteers serving as legally required guardians ad litem save government millions of dollars. Yet, funding to supervise these volunteers who are appointed to watch out for the best interests of children in the child-welfare system was cut by more than 20 percent this biennium.
Youth crime is down, due in large part to the research-based programs in juvenile court, but funding for probation officers and these evidence-based programs was cut.
Courts have to be open. Yes, we are in a recession, but tough economic times do not create a recession in case filings. Courts 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. We should all care.
Chief Justice Marshall may have spoken decades ago, but his words still ring true. He reminded us in 1830 — and he reminds us now — the judiciary, a separate but equal branch of government, affects our property, our reputation, our lives, our all.
Without adequate funding, courts that bring order to our society may no longer be able to keep that promise. During this special legislative session to settle the state's budget for the next two years, tell your state legislator to adequately fund the judiciary, and if at all possible, to restore cuts that threaten the fabric of our society.Laura Inveen is the chief civil judge in the King County Superior Court. Beginning Tuesday, she becomes president of the state Superior Court Judges Association.
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