National Law Day address by Chief Judge Eric T. Washington

National Law Day
Press Conference, Newseum, Washington, D.C.

Good Morning. Happy Law Day, and thank you for being here.

I am honored to have the opportunity to talk to you today, National Law Day, about our system of justice. It’s a truly magnificent system, yet the courts are the least understood branch of our democratic government.

It’s also the most vulnerable to budget cuts in difficult economic times. It’s the duty for us who work in the Third Branch to help citizens understand the judiciary’s role in society and how the rule of law is at risk when courts no longer have the resources to remain accessible to the public.

State judiciaries handle nearly 95 percent of all court cases filed in the United States, according to the National Center for State Courts.

  • In 2009, the most recent year statistics are available, the total number of cases filed in federal courts, was 384,330 -- not including bankruptcy.
  • In state courts the number was 47.3 million, not including traffic offenses.

It’s important to note that on average, state court budgets are less than two percent of the entire state budget -- but that state court services are constitutionally mandated. In fiscal year 2011, courts in more than 42 states were forced to reduce their budgets.

Courts have already taken dramatic steps to cut waste and increase efficiency, even as caseloads have increased -- and funding has decreased -- in recent years. 

Those steps have included closing courthouse doors, limiting the availability of jury trials, and cuts to the security services that keep our courts safe. Civil cases are being delayed, which not only impacts access, it wastes money throughout the entire system and society.

There’s nowhere left to cut – and retain the justice system that we have.

It’s already working at full capacity, especially when you consider the comparison of state court caseloads to federal court caseloads. The statistics are sobering.

Courts are not a perfect institution, but they are indispensable to providing access to justice and protecting our Constitutional rights.

Further cuts will undermine the ability of the courts to ensure access to justice and uphold fundamental rights

It takes only a small amount of additional funding to add the sort of technology and programs that will make a big difference in keeping the courts open, accessible and efficient.

Thank you for your time.

Chief Judge Washington heads the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.