Like almost every government agency in Oregon, the state’s judicial branch took a hit during the Great Recession. Unlike most other agencies, the judicial branch, which includes all the state’s courts, has not seen a return to financial stability in the ensuing years.
That’s a problem, though not one that gets nearly the attention it deserves. The judicial department is, after all, one of three equal branches of government, along with the executive and legislative branches. Unfortunately, it’s the only branch that has no control over its financial resources, and judges, at least the ones I’ve met, are not the sort of men and women to shout about their difficulties from the rooftops.
Yet they’ve got plenty to shout about: Statewide, the Oregon Judicial Department has lost more than 12% of its staff positions in the last decade. That may not sound like much, but it is. Only one circuit court of Oregon’s 36, in Lane County, is open all day, including through the lunch hour. Here, court offices are open until 4:30 each afternoon, and the file viewing room is closed to the public from noon on.
There are other problems, as well.
Deschutes County is home to roughly 57,000 more residents today than it was when the circuit court here last got an additional judge. And while one more judge would help, it would take 2.6 more to meet the demand for their services in a timely fashion.
A shortage of judges isn’t the only difficulty the county’s circuit court faces, unfortunately. Like the rest of the state, it’s receiving less money than it was a decade ago. Thus, the court’s budget in 2007-09 was $10.88 million in today’s dollars. Today, it’s $8.69 million. Those numbers reflect what’s happened to the judicial department’s budget statewide.
All of this has an impact on everyone in Deschutes County.
Criminals cannot be tried and sentenced, if they’re found guilty, as quickly as they used to be. If a defendant pleads guilty to a crime, he or she may wait as long as six months before being sentenced. I think that kind of delay gives some defendants the idea that they’re not being held accountable. Too, it almost certainly makes some victims feel the same way.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office have, together, added the equivalent of 37 new jobs to their offices in the last five years. More cops and more staff in the district attorney’s office mean more work for circuit courts, and that, in turn, can mean longer delays for everyone.
While delays are bad for all, they’re worse for some, I’d argue. Children caught up in the court system, when parents are divorcing or as objects of a custody battle or because the kids themselves have gotten into trouble, suffer when cases drag on. Courts recognize that and do what they can.
Nor can business issues or legal disputes be resolved quickly.
All this is just the tip of the state’s judicial iceberg, unfortunately. But, as Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters will tell you, the fallout from justice delayed is insidious. If people feel the courts are not handling their problems both quickly and fairly, they lose respect for the law. If enough people feel that way, no community would be able to hire enough police officers to handle the problems that would cause.
You know that’s true, if you think about it. Cities and counties don’t have the resources to enforce such things as speed limits all the time, everywhere. The result is that people drive above those limits routinely.
Oregon lawmakers are in the throes of writing the state’s budget for the 2019-20 biennium this month, and they’ll decide how much to spend on the judicial department. Unless Oregonians help them understand how important an adequately staffed and financed court system is, I’m afraid that once again, courts will get the short end of the budgetary stick.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org