Justice denied: Oregon courts face gaping budget gap

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Court funding has been in decline for the past decade. 

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One unsettling graph explains the plight of Oregon’s courts. In her expansive third-floor office at the Oregon Supreme Court, Chief Justice Martha Walters points to a line, the number of full-time staff positions the federal government thinks necessary for the state courts to work properly.  

“We have never even asked to be up here, we’re so far down,” Walters says, pointing to another number, the level the state legislature has approved, but not funded. “We’re just trying to get here.”

Oregon’s judicial branch has remained so underfunded for so long that it’s struggling to provide basic services. The courts can’t stay open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cases take days or weeks longer than they should. Judges leave because they don’t get paid enough.

A coalition of business leaders, nonprofits and legal groups, which includes Nike and Columbia Sportswear, is calling for closing the funding gap. Underfunded courts, they say, are hampering business growth. Disputes drag on for too long, and employees lose valuable working hours waiting for their cases to make it through.

“Where people do business is affected by your ability to enforce your rights,” says Peter Bragdon, general counsel at Columbia Sportswear, a company involved in cases in 90 court systems across the globe. “You don’t want to sit around for years trying to resolve it. The time is money.”

With the Legislature in full swing just down the street, the justices in the aging Oregon Supreme Court building are feeling neglected by lawmakers.

“They just take us for granted I think,” Walters says. “They know it’s important but it’s hard to know what happens in the courts. We don’t want some sort of disaster to happen before we fix it.”

Just to keep things running as they are now, the judicial branch says it needs $505.6 million from the general fund. That’s about 2.2% of the overall state government budget.

“We’re one of three branches,” Walters says, “so you would think we would get 30% of the funding, but we’re under 3%.”

“We’re one of three branches, so you would think we would get 30% of the funding, but we’re under 3%.”
—Martha Walters, chief justice, Oregon Supreme Court

The chief justice is asking the Legislature for another $9.7 million to provide basic services like serving arrest warrants within 24 hours and keeping courts open for the entire business day. Right now, only three circuit courts stay open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week. The next priority calls for $7.5 million to increase judge salaries.

The list goes on and on. There are “critical priorities” followed by plain-old “priorities.” The requests add up to about $32 million from the state general fund, and more than $330 million in bond funding.

The funding battle has been going downhill for at least a decade. Court staffing took a nosedive during the recession, and never came back up. From 2007 to 2017, Oregon’s population rose by 11%, but staffing fell by 12.5%.

Many of these positions assist Oregonians who can’t afford a lawyer for civil cases. Those who can’t pay for a lawyer in criminal cases get a public defender, but in civil suits they’re on their own.  In family law, Walters says, that can be up to 80% of people. The court is asking for more staffers to answer the phone, take questions and help these citizens navigate the complex legal system.

The staffing shortage increases costs for businesses because their employees need to wait longer to resolve personal disputes. They might need to take more time off work to make it through the burdened court system.

The courts also have a mandate to resolve criminal cases and urgent civil disputes before getting to business matters. The lack of staffing means the priority cases drag on for months, and businesses wait longer to get answers.

The increasing criminalization of civil suits, Bragdon says, complicates the problem. Over the years, more actions have become crimes, subject to additional litigation. “There can be a crowding out that can make it harder to proceed,” he says. “It’s part of the calculation when you’re considering whether to bring a case against somebody.”

The lack of staffers also takes a toll on nonprofits, which manage cases for clients on everything from tenant rights to foster care.

“I was surprised to see so many open staff positions in the system,” says Jim White, director of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. “These are often people being supported by or working with various nonprofits to mitigate the effects of homelessness or addiction.”

“Where people do business is affected by your ability to enforce your rights. You don’t want to sit around for years trying to resolve it.”
—Peter Bragdon, general counsel, Columbia Sportswear

The current funding gap also makes it difficult to find qualified judges. Judges in Oregon still earn six-figure salaries; but these are high-profile lawyers. They could be making more than twice as much at a big-name law firm.

This creates a hierarchy problem. Just as employees don’t make more than their bosses, the lawyers in the courtroom probably shouldn’t make more than the judges.

Top legal minds can even net more elsewhere in the public sector, working, for example, as an assistant attorney general, or for another state. In fact, Oregon ranks 46th in the nation for judge salaries.

The dearth of qualified judges endangers business cases, in particular. Issues like intellectual property and business contracts require judges with specialized knowledge.

“You want to have a system that attracts the best,” Bragdon says. “We’ve shortchanged them.”

The chief justice proposes tying judge pay to the compensation for federal district court judges. Under the proposal, by 2019 Oregon judges would make 75% of what the district judges make, and 80% by 2021.

The judge shortage can have serious consequences for ordinary Oregonians.

“You may have to sit the whole weekend before a judge can hear if you’re available to get bond,” White says. “You might end up sitting in county jail without any recourse for being heard.”

“We have constitutional responsibilities we’re finding it hard to meet,”
—Martha Walters, chief justice

The chief justice is also requesting about $326 million in bonds for upgrading the courts’ physical infrastructure. Public infrastructure all over Oregon is aging, and the courts are no exception. People line up on the street to enter the Multnomah County Courthouse on busy days.

The towering new courthouse building at the base of the Hawthorne Bridge is nearly funded to completion, but not quite. Clackamas, Benton, Lane and Linn counties all need upgrades or new courthouses. One-and-a-half million dollars are needed just to maintain “minimum security requirements” in courts.

The judicial branch needs another $4 million to maintain E-Court, an electronic system for paying tickets and finding documents for completing other legal tasks. The Legislature funded the design of the system, but not the money to keep it running.

Although the courts have limped along for years on their budget levels, there is an air of urgency in the campaign for funding. The chief justice urges Oregonians to write or call legislators and ask them to increase court funding.

“We have constitutional responsibilities we’re finding it hard to meet,” says Walters.  

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