The Maryland State Bar Association and the American Bar Association advocated for increased court funding Monday during the MSBA’s annual Law Day conference.
ABA President William T. Robinson III and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell spoke at the event, each emphasizing the ABA’s chosen Law Day theme of “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.”
“It’s our desire to draw public attention to the need for equal and sustained funding for courts throughout the country,” Robinson said.
While Maryland’s General Assembly voted this session to raise judges’ salaries starting in fiscal 2014 — their first raise since 2006 — judicial systems elsewhere are not as fortunate.
Robinson said 40 of the 50 states in the country cut funding to their judicial systems in fiscal 2010. Funding cuts can mean closing the courts on Fridays or additional days during the year, closing courthouses, unpaid furloughs for court employees, and increasing fees to file claims, according to The Judges’ Journal, an ABA quarterly publication.
“The courts are one of three co-equal branches of government and they need to be adequately funded to protect a constitutional democracy,” Robinson said.
Fourteen states have laid off judicial staff, 26 states have not filled judicial vacancies and 15 states reduced the number of hours the courts are open, Robinson wrote in an article for the Journal. The ABA has formed the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System to study the issue and advocate for change.
“If citizens do not have access to justice, then the freedom in this country is less and less available,” Robinson said.
The event, which was held at the Conference Center at Sheppard Pratt in Towson, hosted about 200 high school students and teachers from around the state. Henry E. Dugan, Jr., president of the MSBA, said 150 more students wanted to attend but were turned away because the center did not have room for them all.
“It’s great for young kids to be so interested and have this opportunity,” Dugan said. “We only regret that we couldn’t reach more.”
During his opening address, Bell talked about the importance of lawyers and the dangers of underfunding. He said Maryland, however, has not experienced the court funding cuts that other states have had.
“If the courts are underfunded, you have to skimp on justice,” Bell said.
After Robinson and Bell spoke, attendees broke into groups for hour-long seminars including “Anatomy of a Legal Case,” which detailed what happens after someone is arrested and faces a court trial; “You be the Judge,” where Baltimore City Circuit Judge Pamela J. White spoke about criminal charges against juveniles; and a session on the reality and myth of how the court system in portrayed on TV.
“We want [students] to take away an appreciation for the critical role the judicial branch of government plays in our democracy and what happens if you take that away,” Dugan said.