At a time when it is fashionable to castigate government for either doing too little or too much; for wasting taxpayer dollars or not making adequate investments, Connecticut's Judicial Branch and its administrators deserve kudos for their efforts to move the branch forward while struggling with the burden of significant budget cuts.
Shortly following Chase T. Rogers' appointment as chief justice in 2007, the national and state economies began to crater. Over the past five budget cycles, the Judicial Branch, like its legislative and executive counterparts, has been asked to absorb significant cuts while maintaining its constitutional and statutory obligations to provide timely and equal access to justice. In the 2012 fiscal year alone, the General Fund budget for the branch was $50 million less than required to effectively operate in the preceding two years. On top of that, the court system was required to absorb an additional $10 million in budgetary rescissions imposed as part of the legislature's deficit mitigation plan. While the Judicial Branch's budget of approximately $500 million represents only 2.5 percent of the state budget, it has been asked to absorb almost three times that amount in cuts.
The succession of budget reductions has taken a toll on Judicial Branch operations. Only one out of every seven employees who left the branch has been replaced, creating staffing shortages in clerks' offices and courtrooms leading to delays in the processing of cases. The number of days judge trial referees are authorized to work was reduced by 15 percent. State Police coverage outside certain courthouses was eliminated, and there are 100 fewer marshals than many believe are necessary to safely staff courthouse security. Funding for law libraries has been dramatically scaled back.
Yet, despite the significant challenges created by the state's fiscal woes, or perhaps motivated by them, the Judcial Branch has implemented a number of creative initiatives that have made its operations more effective and responsive to the needs of the bar and its clients. Responding to concerns that the public's confidence in the court system was undermined both by budget cuts and adverse publicity generated by a series of embarrassing disclosures that preceded her appointment, Chief Justice Rogers created the Public Service and Trust Commission, chaired by Chief Appellate Judge Alexandra DiPentima.
A recently issued five-year update of the commission's work chronicles significant improvements in Judicial Branch services and operations. Standing orders have been promulgated to help insure uniformity and consistency of procedures in the 13 judicial districts. E-filing technology has modernized the civil docket system, allowing counsel real time access to pleadings and allowing for the redeployment of clerks to courtroom assignments. A recent initiative has helped galvanize law firms across the state to enhance their pro bono activities.
Legislation increasing filing fees has helped to offset funding for legal services organizations reeling from the loss of IOLTA funds. Spurred by pleas from lawmakers, the Court Support Services Division has undertaken initiatives that have helped to dramatically reduce the rate of adult incarceration and recidivism, juvenile detention admissions and domestic violence re-arrest rates. Criminal arrests are down 19 percent and the sentenced inmate population has declined nearly 20 percent as a result of the Judicial Branch's partnership with the state's other criminal justice agencies.
Despite these successes many challenges confront court system administrators, including managing family dockets in which 84 percent of the cases involve at least one self-represented litigant. The implementation of a meaningful judicial performance evaluation system and thoughtful consideration of the sensitive question of racial disparity in the criminal justice system are essential if the Judicial Branch is to continue to sustain public trust and confidence in its work. For now, its ongoing commitment to improving its services while responsibly managing its budget deserves the support of the bar and our elected officials.•