Who Pays for Justice?

Perspectives on State Court System Financing and Governance

by Geoffrey McGovern, Michael D. Greenberg

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Research Questions

  1. How are court systems financed in different states?
  2. How is state-level funding obtained?
  3. What is considered part of different state court systems?
  4. Can systems carry unused funding forward to subsequent years?
  5. How specific are appropriations?
  6. How do systems allocate and manage funds?

Many state judicial systems experienced significant cuts to their operating budgets following the 2008 financial crisis and during the ensuing years of reduced state treasuries. Researchers surveyed experts from five states that use a variety of approaches to funding state court systems. The report documents that there is ample variation across the states in terms of how their court systems receive their annual funding, how they account for and track their budgets, and how the court systems are governed. An appreciation of these dimensions of difference is crucial for policymakers, court administrators, and those concerned about ensuring high levels of access to justice through the state courts and the long-term stability of the courts as an institution of government.

Key Findings

State and County Revenue Streams Vary Widely

  • Most of the states examined fell somewhere between the extremes of state- and county-level funding for trial court systems.

Funded Services Vary Between State Courts

  • Even trying to put labels on what is included in the state court system within a given state can become ambiguous and complicated.

How State Courts Spend Fee Revenue Varies Significantly

  • A significant financing distinction separates states that permit their court systems to retain control over some portion of court-generated fee revenue from states that do not.

State Court Systems Vary in Their Flexibility to Carry Forward Resources or Revenue

  • When the state court systems recognize revenue and their degree of flexibility in being able to draw on or bank funds can affect a system's agility given revenue volatility and create challenges in meeting cash-flow needs.

Line Items and Fund Allocation Vary Between Systems

  • Some state legislatures provide for many more court system funding line items than others do — a state practice that can thereby reduce a court system's flexibility and autonomy in determining how to allocate appropriated funds.

Disclosure Differs Greatly Between Systems

  • The details of what accounting information gets formally disclosed in the annual report and how this corresponds to the more detailed accounting that is undertaken in the operational management of the court system varies from state to state.

Governance Models Vary Significantly

  • Line items and earmarks for special legislative priorities can frustrate attempts at efficient management of resources and slow the reaction time when funding shortages appear.

Recommendation

  • States' ability to adopt different structures and policies represents an opportunity for comparative research on what approaches work and when.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction: Why Study State Judicial Funding?

  • Chapter Two

    State Court System Financing and Accounting Show Significant Variations

  • Chapter Three

    State Court Governance: Autonomy and Flexibility Can Mitigate the Effects of Fiscal Crises

  • Chapter Four

    Conclusions and Going Forward

  • Appendix

    Interview Protocol

The research described in this report was supported by pooled contributions to the RAND Institute for Civil Justice, a program of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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