Disorder in the Court: VA Supreme Court Spending Out of Control
Judicial spending rising 1000% faster than the rate of population growth.
Paul Goldman VNS is proud to announce that Paul Goldman's weekly column will be featured on Fridays.  

Goldman, 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 America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics. He alone will be responsible for his column, ideas, and opinions.  

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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.

The 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.

In 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. 

         Indeed, this is 1000% faster than the growth in Virginia's population during the last two decades.

Why has 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%.

It 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.

But even when we subtract out the cost of the public defender system, the rest of the Judicial Branch budget is over 400% higher today than it was a generation ago.

Admittedly, the 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 untouched.

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 million dollars.

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.

All three 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 our 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.

In addition, the Office of Governor, Office of Lieutenant Governor and Office of Attorney General can likewise save taxpayers millions.

The Attorney 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 have 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 of government.

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