Courts in Crisis: Recession Drives Caseloads Up, Budgets Down

Court systems nationwide are facing two forces that could collide and create a major crisis in 2010. Caseloads driven by the recession are flooding the courts at the same time as judicial systems around the country are dealing with budget cuts. In some states, those budget cuts could slow the flow of paperwork and possibly even result in postponement of some trials.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% For example, New York's state courts ended the year with 4.7 million cases, according to a report in The New York Times Monday. That's the highest tally ever, and it may just be the beginning. Courts are just starting to see the full brunt of cases involving recession-related issues such as contract disputes (up 9%), home foreclosure filings (up 17%), assaults by family members (up 18%), misdemeanor charges (up 7%) and lesser violations (up 18%). The only types of cases that remain low involve serious crimes. Increasingly, what the courts are seeing are cases in which the root causes are families in crisis after losing their homes and jobs.

Other states are being hard hit too. For example, Florida courts are dealing with a 446% increase in foreclosure filings. Arizona reports that eviction cases tripled in 2009 and contract disputes are up 77%. Ohio court officials told the Times that more and more people are coming to court unable to afford legal representation.

Cases involving unpaid credit card bills also add to the ballooning numbers in caseload. Ten years ago, New York City's civil courts, which handle disputes involving sums under $25,000, dealt with about 200,000 cases annually. By 2009, their annual caseload had exploded to 577,000.

Not all cases involve families in crisis. Judges also are dealing with multimillion dollar business deals that blew up, and those can be almost as dramatic as divorce trials. In one case, a hotel development company argued unsuccessfully before New York's State Supreme Court that the "ongoing economic crisis" was akin to an act of God, which therefore permitted it to break its obligation to pay for the plot in Lower Manhattan where the hotel was to be built, according to a report in the Times.

More Lawsuits, More Crimes, Fewer Resources to Respond


Even as the case loads jump across the country, state and local governments are being forced to make cuts in court budgets just to make ends meet. One judge in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, will be heard in court on Monday as the plantiff in an attempt to stop 2010 budget cuts from taking effect Jan. 1. If he wins, others could follow suit in Pennsylvania -- it may even start a trend nationwide.

In Alabama, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has warned that the court system could have to lay off 500 to 600 workers if its budget is cut by 9% as Gov. Bob Riley has warned. The state, Cobb suggested, may have to cancel civil trials as it did during the 2002 budget crisis. But even if the state suspended all civil trials, it would only save $400,000. Some counties are asking jurors to forfeit their $10 per-day pay. If all jurors volunteered to serve for free, it could save Alabama $2 million per year.

With foreclosures continuing to mount, business deals going sour, and more and more families in crisis ending up in domestic disputes, the court crisis is nowhere near its end. America's courts have been left to clean up the mess from this recession -- but they'll have to do it while getting their own houses in order too.

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