The civil rights lawyers who sued the state of Connecticut to desegregate Hartford-area schools knew they were in for a long fight. But after 20 years of litigation in the case known as Sheff v. O’Neill, they thought they were finally nearing their goal. In early 2008 the state and plaintiffs reached a settlement that would help integrate Hartford-area schools: Connecticut agreed to send more Hartford city students to suburban schools and increase funding for magnet schools.

Then the agreement ran headlong into the recession. With Connecticut’s legislature negotiating a revised, pared-down budget, about $19 million promised for Sheff integration measures this year were suddenly in peril. Although the budget was due by July 1, it wasn’t clear until September — just as schools were opening — whether Connecticut would fund the Sheff measures. Ultimately, the state allotted $12.8 million of the $13.9 million requested.

“Until last week, it has literally been completely up in the air,” said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program and a lead lawyer on the Sheff case, in an interview in early September.

As state budget battles unfold from Connecticut to California, it’s becoming increasingly clear that remedial measures designed to uphold constitutional rights — even those that were court-ordered — are often the first budget items in danger. Several civil rights lawyers say that budget shortfalls are stalling reform by preventing states from implementing court-ordered remedies.

In Connecticut the woes of the financial services industry reduced state tax money available for Sheff-mandated school buses, new supplies, and magnet school construction. In New York over $2 billion promised to improve public schools — part of a court-ordered agreement in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York — has not been allocated. In New York and Michigan, indigent representation suits aiming to reform the states’ public defender programs are hitting a budget wall: Legislatures say they lack the funds to keep indigent representation at prerecession levels, let alone to institute reforms. And in California, after lawyers representing a class of student plaintiffs negotiated a settlement in 2006, forcing schools to give underperforming minority students up to two extra years of instruction to pass the California High School Exit Exam, the state legislature is permitting school districts to redirect nearly $60 million appropriated for the remedial instruction to other expenses.

Even under normal circumstances, finding the funds to put civil rights victories into practice can take years because of reluctant legislatures, says Arturo Gonzalez, the Morrison & Foerster partner who represents the plaintiffs pro bono in the California case. “Every year,” he says, “we have to monitor the situation and continue to put pressure on people.” This year, though, the legislature was having trouble finding money for staff and textbooks, let alone the remedial program.

Lawyers say that budget realities are forcing them to reconsider their options, now that fiscal woes have rendered even court rulings and settlements ineffectual. Gonzalez’s team is meeting with individual California school districts to encourage them to direct funds to remedial CAHSEE education. “If some districts fail to provide the CAHSEE remediation,” he adds, “we will likely return to court.” The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, meanwhile, is trying to negotiate a budget with New York state legislators. “We feel like the economic situation is such that it would be a high hurdle to get a court judgment,” says CFE director Geri Palast. “[The state legislators] say they’re broke.”