It looks like the state budget will not cover fundamental legal needs identified by the leadership of the Judicial Branch. During session I have refrained from using the blog for commentary on bills, except to explain the many bills that would raise criminal court costs. At this point - apparently too late - I am obliged to at least point out the irony of what has happened.
Basic Civil Legal Services, the fund supporting the bare-bones infrastructure for fundamental legal services, ended up $20 million short. The Indigent Defense Fund, supporting county efforts to provide constitutionally required defense in criminal cases, ended up $8.6 million short. Both programs already dramatically underserve their target populations due to budgetary decisions, including the continued large-scale redirection of revenue generated from the Judicial Branch.
The Legislative Budget Board reports that the Judicial Branch generated $185 million more in revenue (through criminal court costs and civil filing fees, much more the former), than the Legislature appropriated for the Judicial Branch, last biennium. We [the Office of Court Administration] brought this information to the forefront in the appropriations process, and in an ideal world the response would have been to reallocate funds already generated to meet the critical needs identified by the leadership of the Judicial Branch. In the world we live in, holding our noses, we proposed several ways to raise the additional revenue those critical needs require, and it was only yesterday that we learned that the Legislature ultimately failed to adopt them - a $5 additional cost in criminal cases (added to $98 currently), and a $10 increase in civil filing fees (added to $5 or $10 current fees, depending on case type).That's a striking notion: The judiciary, mostly through crimnal courts, raised $185 million more in revenue than its entire appropriation last biennium, but instead of using that extra revenue to pay lawyers for defendants who can't afford them, they tacked on even more fees and still under-funded indigent defense! If there were any doubts that legislators view criminal courts as revenue generators for other projects as opposed to a fundamental governmental obligation with concomitant responsibilities, that data should dispel them.
As county commissioners develop their budgets over the summer and struggle to fund rising indigent defense costs on their end, it would behoove local officials to keep in mind - and constantly remind voters and their legislators - that the courts generate plenty of money to help them with those costs, the Legislature just chose to divert the money, as usual, to other things.
A related CourTex post focuses on the rise of pro se (self-represented) defendants in civil court, estimating that 45% of divorces (around 61,000 cases last year) are now handled without attorneys. Since the economic crunch began, the amount of civil litigation has rapidly declined, probably because people cannot afford lawyers. The only category of civil litigation increasing since 2008: Evictions.
UPDATE: A commenter informs me that "SB2 in the special session added major funding back in. Both civil legal aid and indigent defense were addressed in the form of approved amendements in both chambers to SB 2 of the special session, which is awaiting a conference committee. Presumably, since the civil legal aid and indigent defense provisions are identical in both versions, it will be in the final bill." Of course, restoring funds to last biennium's levels doesn't cover all that's needed, as Reynolds pointed out, but it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.
'NUTHER UPDATE: From Angela Morris writing at the Texas Lawyer's TexParte Blog.