Report of the District of Columbia Bar Court Funding Committee: Executive Summary
This Committee was constituted by the D.C. Bar Board of Governors in September 2000, to study the question of whether the District of Columbia Courts, composed of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia ("the Courts"), have suffered from inadequate funding, and to write a report setting forth its findings and conclusions. The Board of Governors also asked the Committee to make a recommendation on the question whether the Board of Governors should seek authority from the membership of the D.C. Bar to speak in support of funding legislation for the Courts.
The Committee, after studying the issue, is unanimously of the view that the Bar should speak in support of funding for the Courts. We have an unusually high quality local court system in the District. Inadequate funding has been an acute problem for the Courts for several years in a row. These funding problems present a clear threat to the administration of justice. The Bar has both the expertise and the responsibility to speak on this issue. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Board of Governors seek authority from the membership of the D.C. Bar to lobby in support of adequate funding for the Courts.
There is a fine local Court system here in the District. Its judges are well and carefully selected and reviewed. The judges are highly regarded by the bar and handle one of the busiest court systems in the country. For example, in 1999 there were 144, 244 new case filings, and 167,700 case dispositions in Superior Court. This is one of the highest case disposition by population ratios in the country.
In 1996, a conference report issued by the United States Congress emphasized "the high quality and caliber of all court personnel, including management staff" and stated:
The District's judicial branch of government is one of the better managed entities in the District government. All personnel, including those in supervisory roles, appear to be well trained and dedicated to excellence… Conf. Rept. to H.R. 2546, January 31, 1996.
During the last few years, however, serious funding problems have threatened the Courts' ability to administer justice.
For several years, the Courts had insufficient funds to compensate adequately its non-judicial employees. By the start of the year 2000, salaries for court employees had dropped to a point where they were almost 20% less than the salaries of comparable federal employees. Employee morale was at an all time low. Many employees had resigned. The Courts lacked funds to replace them and were under staffed by about 130 positions. FY 2001 appropriations have enabled the Courts to achieve pay parity for its employees, and will enable the Courts to fill approximately 30 of the unfilled positions. However, a significant increase in funding will be required to fill the remaining vacant positions.
The Courts have had insufficient funds to compensate adequately counsel assigned to represent indigent defendants charged with crimes. In each year for the last four years, the amount available to pay for counsel assigned to represent indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act ("CJA") was insufficient. The Court has an obligation under the United States Constitution to appoint such counsel and to see to it that such counsel are paid. But in some years, payment to the lawyers who did this work had to be deferred because of inadequate funding. In other years, the Court had to take funds from its already stressed operating budget to make up the shortfall.
The Courts are in need of additional space which can only be obtained through additional funding. Since the Moultrie Building, which houses the Courts, was built in 1978, the number of judges and hearing commissioners in the Superior Court has increased by more than one third. The old courthouse at 451 Indiana Avenue, which is an historic landmark, is needed to relieve some of the space pressures on the Moultrie Building. However, it requires immediate and extensive restoration work before it can be utilized for any purpose.
The Courts are in serious need of new and upgraded technology systems. They have been appropriated only a fraction of the funds they requested and which they need for this purpose. The Courts simply cannot be expected to run efficiently in this day and age without the necessary information technology equipment and software. In September 2000, the National Center for State Courts issued a report on the Courts' information technology system and found that: 1) the Court needs a new integrated computer system (i.e., not modification of the existing one); 2) current woes are due to lack of funding; and 3) the Court has done "valiantly in the face of lack of funding." The report also concludes the Court is underfunded when compared with the national and the federal level of funding.1
The funding problems appear to be associated, at least in part, with passage of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 (the "Revitalization Act") under which the federal government assumed direct funding responsibility for the Courts' budget. This Committee has not endeavored to determine definitively all of the reasons that the Courts experienced these funding problems. It is enough to observe that the problems cannot continue unremedied without serious damage to the short and long term fiscal health of our court system and to the administration of justice.
The Committee notes that the appropriation process for FY2001 saw significant improvement. Congress provided funds to permit the Courts to bring the salaries of court employees to parity with federal employees. Funds were also provided to make repairs to the roof on 451 Indiana Avenue. However, over 100 staff positions remain unfilled, and at present, the Courts lack funds to fill all but approximately 30 of these positions. Moreover, the House and the Senate differed by $4 million on the amount which should be appropriated to pay for CJA lawyers during FY 2001, and Congress appropriated the lower amount. Further, no additional funds were appropriated for technology or information technology personnel. In addition, space needs remain a significant issue for the Courts.
Role of the Bar
The professional attorneys who make up the bar know, perhaps better than any other segment of our society, how important our system of justice is, how central to that system our courts are, and how crucial adequate funding is to the proper functioning of our courts. The Committee has concluded that critical funding needs pose a threat to the administration of justice. It is the responsibility of the bar to speak up on this issue.
Based on this Committee's study of this issue, it is clear that the Courts have significant funding needs, and that there is a risk that those requirements will not be met. It is vital that the Courts' leadership has available the tools they need—in terms of funding and technology—to make the Courts successful.
The Board of Governors of the D.C. Bar has twice before—in 1992 and 1993—received authority from its membership to lobby in support of court funding. The Courts experienced significant funding and morale problems for several years in the late 1990s, which continue to adversely impact on the administration of justice. This Committee therefore recommends that the Board of Governors seek a multi-year authority to speak on outstanding court funding issues that need to be addressed, and may need to be addressed in the future.
The report indicates that D.C. receives $4950 less per employee than the average for state courts nationwide, and approximately $12,000 less per employee than the average for federal courts.