Disorder in the Court: VA Supreme
Court Spending Out of Control
Judicial spending rising 1000% faster than the rate of population
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the Rebel With A Cause, was chief political strategist
for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and
was credited with leading a "revolution in American
politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking
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This is one legal question you will not see debated on Law and
Order or The Practice: Of the three branches of
Virginia government - Executive, Legislative,
or Judicial - which one is guilty of being the biggest budget buster,
contributing the most to the state's nearly 2 billion in red ink? Most
jurors would guess the Legislative branch, as it's spending has
skyrocketed over 3000% in the last 30 years, many times faster than
the inflation rate.
But in the last 2 decades, Judicial Branch spending has actually risen
about 50% faster than the out of control spending by the General
Assembly, often on themselves.
truth about this huge growth in Judicial spending is easily detailed.
The total for the Judicial Department, as this branch is called in
state appropriation lingo, was 133 million in the 1983-1984 biennium
budget. For the 2003-2004 budget passed last May, this amount has now
grown to 601,000,000. This hog wild spending has thus mushroomed 4 1/2
times higher, more than triple the rate of inflation.
current dollars and sense, this means the Judicial Branch is costing
taxpayers a staggering total of 335,000,000 million in extra spending
above what was necessary to have kept pace with inflation.
this is 1000% faster than the growth in Virginia's population during
the last two decades.
the Judicial Branch budget exploded in recent years?
There are several factors. Twenty years ago, the biennium state budget
allocated about 3.8 million for the general administrative support and
management line items
of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Yet the current two-year budget says
this will now cost 21.1 million, or 550% more.
This is 3 times faster
than the inflation adjusted value of a dollar, even though it only has
12 more employees today than a generation ago. Two decades ago, the
state budget appropriated roughly 27 million for the state's Circuit
Courts. The current budget funding line totals $160,000,000 over the
next two years. This is a 133 million dollar increase, or nearly 600%.
is expected to cost 100,000,000 million more for our General District
Courts, a 330% jump. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts have
seen their costs increase by over 400%. The Board of Bar Examiners
today costs about
1,830,000: back in the 1983-1984 budget, the cost was only 232,000.
This is nearly 800% higher. Then there is the cost of the Combined
District Courts and other
parts of the Judicial Branch.
Admittedly, there has been a gigantic increase in the cost of
providing legal representation for indigent defendants. Twenty years
ago, the Judicial branch budget contained a general fund appropriation
of $1,660,000 for what is known as the Public Defender Commission.
According to the current budget, this
now costs taxpayers upwards of 45 million, an astronomical increase.
when we subtract out the cost of the public defender system,
the rest of the Judicial Branch budget is over 400% higher today than
a generation ago.
overall cost of state government generally has significantly increased
in the last 20 years. Moreover, the spending by the Judicial
Department is only a little more than 1% of the total state budget:
better than 19% goes to the Department of Education and more than 13%
is allocated to on the Department of Medical Assistance Services.
Indeed, you could save the entire 601,000,000 Judicial Department
funding and still leave 2/3 of the current projected budget deficit
But this does
not excuse the Judicial Branch for failing, at least to date,
to publicly commit itself to the 15% cuts being asked of other
governmental agencies. Even a 10% reduction in terms of the Judicial
Department's general fund spending would save taxpayers over 57
In terms of
protecting Virginia's for poor children, the frail elderly, and those
workers struggling up the ladder of success, 57 million is a
substantial sum of money.
branches of government must do their part to make sure we don't
unnecessarily cut into the state's safety net or public schools during
current financial problems. As I have shown previously, the General
Assembly Department can save 18 million by cutting it's budget by the
same amount the politicians claim they are being forced to cut many
other state services.
the Office of Governor, Office of Lieutenant Governor and Office of
Attorney General can likewise save taxpayers millions.
General's office is given over 57 million in the current budget.
Twenty years ago, the state's chief law enforcement official was able
to do the job for 14.2 million. This is an increase of 400%, although
a some portion of the current budgetary appropriation does not come
from the state's hard-pressed general fund.
But even a 15%
reduction from the Attorney General's general fund appropriation will
result in a greater than 5 million dollar biennium budget saving.
The Governor and Lieutenant Governor must also do their part, as they
promised to do [a future column will discuss their spending].
Net, net: The
cost of our legal system is growing far faster than the taxpayers can
currently afford. The Judicial branch costs too much, and this
is in addition to the expensive nature of private legal representation
in our society at all levels.
In economic terms,
there has been an excess in the amount of what I will
call "political" spending in the state budget for our
elected officials and their
appointees, both to the bench and positions in the other two branches
It would seem at
least several hundreds of millions dollars might be cut from this
"political" spending if we demanded that our politicians and
their appointees lead by example in terms of stopping the growing
budgetary red ink.
In this regard, the
wild spending of the Judicial branch can no longer be considered as
untouchable. The time has come for Chief Judge Hassell. Speaker Howell
and Governor Warner to sit down together and agree that the Judicial
Branch will have to cut it's spending, or risk a public backlash on
the question of whether the Judicially powerful are letting the
powerless bare an unfair share of the sacrifices required by the worst
budget debacle in modern times.
(c) Copyright. All rights reserved. Paul Goldman. 2002