Escalating legal fees for litigation is an unintended consequence of underfunding the Court System. In New Jersey, legal fees have become “user fees” for residents seeking judicial relief for their grievances.
As he continues his tenure as Chief Justice, Stuart Rabner has the unfortunate burden to figure out how to service an ever expanding user need with less money. Managing the Courts is part of the job description for Chief Justice. It is certainly the harder part.
With the exception of municipal courts, the New Jersey court system is funded by tax dollars. Every year New Jersey State Judiciary submits its budget request to the Office of the Treasury, which covers the Appellate Courts and the Administrative Office of the Courts, judicial and support staff salaries, operating costs, and technology upgrades. As with other state offices, lawmakers conduct hearings and approve a budget, which must be signed by the Governor.
In recent years, New Jersey’s courts have struggled to manage every growing caseloads with no significant increase in funding. In 2010, the judicial budget was actually slashed in order to balance the budget, sacrificing more than $30 million dollars in funding. The budget cuts were nearly as devastating in 2011 and 2012. Since the NJ economy remains among the weakest in the nation, the percent of the state general fund appropriation allocated to the New Jersey State Judiciary has continued from 2.2 percent to 2.1 percent in FY 2013, according to the National Center for State Courts.
The staffing levels of the New Jersey court system are higher than they were during the height of the recession, when it was forced to furlough clerical and administrative staff. However, there is still a delay filing judicial vacancies and open support positions. In FY 2013, staffing levels in the trial court and central office staff still declined two percent. As a result, many courts have to prioritize criminal cases and other matters with mandated deadlines, and put civil matters on hold, which has resulted in growing backlogs, long waits for trials and ever increasing legal fees.
Efforts to modernize the court system have also stalled due to lack of funding. Over the past four years, technology funding has decreased four percent. As a result, many technology improvements have been deferred. For instance, the state’s Judiciary Electronic Filing System (JEFIS) is still only operational for select cases, such as foreclosure actions.
The inability to enhance the use of technology is particularly troubling given that services such as e-filing , digital record keeping, and online payment can decrease costs and improve efficiency once implemented. Accordingly, Managing an underfunded Court system while modernizing it is the greatest challenge Chief Justice Rabner faces during his tenure.